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Why Important Meetings Need Summary Notes

Why Important Meetings Need Summary Notes

Jul 26, 2018

By Kate Goff, R&D Manager at Integrated Work

Imagine that you just wrapped up a two-day planning meeting. The conversation was full of productive insights and the participants are eager to implement what they’ve learned. The evaluation scores are excellent and you’re confident that the team will go on to do amazing work in the coming weeks or months. Great job!

Now, it’s time to write your meeting summary.

You might be thinking, “The important work is done. Some quick bullet points as meeting minutes are good enough, right?”

But there’s a reason why the phrase, “She who writes the notes writes history” pops up so frequently in our facilitation skills training programs. Consider this: participants’ memory of all the great conversations they just had at the meeting–the profound realizations, the agreements to change, the resolve to try new approaches–will fade dramatically after just one hour, and by almost 80% in a month. You can see this in the well-known “Forgetting Curve” by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus.

A graph showing The Forgetting Curve, with lines showing how memory decreases as days pass.If it isn’t written and distributed, it will be forgotten as the pressures and obligations of participants’ daily work lives resume. Because of this, the follow-up from most meetings should include summary notes to help participants access and continually use what they learned during the meeting. Read on for a few questions you can ask to ensure you create meaningful notes and summaries from your meetings.

What kind of reference is needed for the team to document their decisions?While bulleted lists and minutes might work for a short meeting, lengthier events usually have overarching themes to extract, summarize, and connect together. Doing a blow-by-blow recount of  who said what doesn’t work well for these longer meetings. When you move beyond minutes and into lengthier summary notes, highlight the top 2-3 themes from each session as well as the overarching themes, along with resources shared and actions participants will take.  For instance, after a two-day meeting about improving access to primary health care, you might notice all discussions had strong themes related to data validity, even if there was no session specifically devoted to data validation. Knowing this, you can devote a section of the notes to data validity and even share additional data-validation resources with the team.

What will help create continuity and keep the team aligned in future meetings to avoid backsliding? Imagine a group of organizational leaders developing a strategy to tackle a particular challenge.  A good meeting summary can be referred to throughout the year, such as before each board meeting. Notes can come in handy during disagreements because the group can collectively refer back to summary notes to recall agreements that were made, priorities identified, etc.

Where will the information be stored? Wherever you store it, make it accessible to the team. Avoid stashing it where no one will see it again or sending it out via email at 4pm on a Friday. Online repositories and collaboration spaces make it easy to share and find summary notes and might even have a “frequently referenced documents” section. Ask yourself, “Where will people be most likely to see it frequently, and will it be accessible to them when they are most likely to need it?”

Who else needs to know what has been accomplished? Beyond the attendees, who else would benefit from knowing the team’s direction, changed thinking, goals and outcomes? Make sure that your notes can be read and understood from their perspective. Consider the participants’ supervisors or direct reports, senior leaders at their organization, other teams they work with, funders and sponsors, partners in other organizations, etc. Don’t forget about team members who were unable to attend the meeting, as well as newly hired staff who need to get up to speed—robust summary notes are efficient ways to orient them.