Run more effective meetings by pre-writing your “recap” summary

According to the Atlassian, the average employee has 62 meetings per month and reports that half of those meetings are a waste of time. It’s great if you can reduce that total number but for the ones you do have, try to make them more effective meetings. I have several strategies I use to make the best use of my meeting time.

That said, one of the biggest time-sucks wasn’t just the time spent in the meeting itself, but post-meeting trying to put together summary emails that would go out to my team. It seemed like writing those summary emails would take as long (or longer) than the meeting itself! Does this sound familiar?

I knew there had to be a better way.

That’s when I changed up my process and started writing the summary email before the meeting even took place. At first, this seems crazy (or presumptuous at best) but stick with me, it’s only a draft at this point.

This draft becomes a reminder of what the important topics are and is a reference point to gauge progress during the meeting. As the conversation takes place, I amend my notes to reflect the actual discussion and can add more details where appropriate.

Below are the steps I use, which I offer here as a starting point.

Write up the ideal summary email before the meeting

The genesis of this idea is a simplified version of the “begin with the end in mind” concept, which is Habit 2 from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The idea is to start thinking about the actual discussion that will take place, which serves a dual purpose of getting your mind focused on the meeting while giving you a chance to gather your thoughts on each topic.

Doing this is easiest if there’s a clear agenda for the meeting. This becomes a basic bullet point outline. Next, fill in the outcome you want to drive toward (or, if you aren’t exactly sure what you want, jot down the options you expect to discuss).

This doesn’t need to be exhaustive but it should be enough so that if you sent it out as-is you would have a little something to say about each topic.

Now you have your summary email drafted.

During your meeting/call, guide the discussion based on this draft

When the meeting begins, this draft will be an easy reminder/reference point for each of the planned topics. What’s become apparent to me in using this method is just how much “drift” happens during well-intentioned meeting discussions.

It actually becomes easy to see when things have drifted off topic. If something is way out of context with the summary you’ve prepared, consider putting the conversation in the parking lot until the core agenda has been addressed.

Take notes to fill out the additional details and changes

During the meeting, it’s easier to take notes because a decent chunk of the work has already been done. Sure, not everything will go exactly how it was laid out in the draft, but I find it to be a lot easier to make note of where things change rather than have to capture everything from raw.

The notes fall into two main categories:

  1. Changes to the basic summary
  2. Details to provide more specifics

When something is radically different from what I expected, it’s very recognizable, and it’s also much easier to make a logical appeal, rather than an emotional one. This is because I’ve already gathered my thoughts and can articulate what I expected based on my summary draft. This helps drive more effective meetings.

Additional details mostly focus on:

  • Key points/highlights (and who said them)
  • Decisions that were made (and what will be discussed later)
  • Follow-ups/action items (and who is assigned)

Also notice here how the burden of writing/typing during the meeting is reduced. This helps drive focus on participating in the meeting rather than being stuck using that brain power to figure out which notes to take.

Final thoughts

I need to point out the elephant in the room: I don’t intend for this method to be interpreted as a way to railroad a meeting toward the outcomes you’re looking for. The point is to get your thoughts straight so you can focus on getting your point across as well as guide a productive session.

Another note is that this approach isn’t applicable to every type of meeting. It assumes some level of control to know what the meeting is about as well as forming an initial opinion on limited information.

Also, consider the audience and the importance of having some off-topic discussions. These can be really valuable, and remember that, sometimes there are important parts of the conversation that should have been laid out in the agenda (but weren’t).

Do you think that writing this kind of summary could help drive more effective meetings? Let me know in the comments!

Matthew C. Anderson

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