Recorder_HeaderDramatis personæ
Fred: Director of IT (the meeting owner)
Heather:  Senior Business Analyst
Oscar:  Accounting Manager
Ben:  Accounting Specialist
Cheryl:  Marketing Manager
Dablu: Senior Software Engineer
Other Stakeholders:  Corps de Ballet

Fred:  Okay, let’s get started now that everyone’s here.  We’re already ten minutes behind.  I’d like to pick up where we left off on Monday.  We had just decided to proceed with a custom application rather than an off-the-shelf package and…

Oscar:  Wait a minute, Fred.  You know I wasn’t able to be here on Monday and so I couldn’t be part of that decision.  I think we need to revisit that first.

Fred:  Oscar, I think we really need to move forward.  We spent the better part of Monday’s meeting putting the pros and cons of off-the-shelf versus custom in columns on the whiteboard and then prioritizing them.  Heather, you got a picture of the whiteboard, right?

Heather:  Well, no, actually.  I took a call on my cell right at the end of the meeting and by the time I finished, the folks in the next meeting had already erased it.

Fred:  Did anyone get it down on paper?

Dablu:  Well, I managed to take notes on some of it, but once we were up out of our chairs working at the board, I don’t have anything.

Ben:  Yeah, it was all moving pretty fast.

Fred:  Wow.  Well, okay, let’s quickly review what we remember the top reasons for our decision were.

Cheryl:  The top reason we had was that our custom information pipeline would not be supported by any packaged solution right out of the box.

Dablu:  I don’t think that’s right.  I remember it being our in-house expertise on the pipeline and the fact that we would be able to reuse code.

Ben:  No, no.  I think that changed when we started talking about the source control problem.

Stakeholder 1:  I don’t remember that at all…

Sound familiar?  A common challenge in most meeting formats is to produce documentation appropriate to the event.  When I am a participant in a meeting, I am the world’s worst note taker; my attention is on the meeting content.  In my experience, I am not alone.  Most others in the meeting are in the same boat.  In fact, good meeting notes require a focus and objectivity of their own.  Unless there is someone in the room dedicated to taking notes, meeting output gets lost just as it did for our intrepid players here.  In mere hours following the end of a meeting, the participants have developed diverse perspectives on what actually occurred.

Different meetings have different requirements with respect to documentation.  For daily standup meetings, the need is minimal.  For more formal meetings with prescribed decisions or output, the need for a published record of some detail is much greater.  For meetings of civic or governing bodies, precise documentation is legally imperative. As the need for documentation increases, so does the desirability of having a dedicated chronicler in attendance.

Facilitated meetings have a more complex requirement for documentation. Except in very rare cases, the role of facilitator must be focused on the process.  Because this requires 100% attention on the participants, the mechanics of appropriate documentation conflict with the role.  This is why most facilitators employ at least one trained recorder.

Role clarity is critical.  While the roles of the facilitator and the recorder are complimentary in practice, the requirements of the two roles tend to conflict with one another if one person is trying to perform both. Three key factors make them generally mutually exclusive.

  • Focus: The facilitator is responsible for keeping the process moving.  This requires minute attention to the individual participants and where each of them is with respect to the process.  The recorder, on the other hand, is responsible for listening accurately and transcribing in some medium with equal accuracy.
  • Orientation: The facilitator needs to be in constant personal contact with the participants.  This means not only making eye contact, but with a body orientation that is open to them (3/4 front to full front).  In most meeting situations, the recorder is working on a white board or wall at the front or sides of a room.  This means that his/her back is consistently turned toward the participants.
  • Pace: The participants set the pace of the process and it is the job of the facilitator to regulate that pace.  Depending on the activity, it is important for the pace to be consistent throughout the activity and not stalled by external constraints.  The recorder is constrained by how quickly he or she can transcribe oral statements to written form.  Often, more than one recorder is required to keep a process flowing.

The facilitator and recorders need to have a firmly established working relationship.  The recorders need to understand the meeting process thoroughly and be attentive to the facilitator’s instructions as well as the needs of the moment.  These team members should establish a repertoire of subtle visual and vocal signals to indicate the need for a course correction.  For instance, if the recorders feel that they are falling behind, they might parrot back the last idea as they transcribe to indicate to the facilitator that they need a little more time.  Conversely, if the facilitator notices one or more participants squinting, he might ask, “Do we need to be recording a little larger?”  The recorders would automatically adjust without stopping the flow of the meeting.

The recorder role is more than merely writing down what is said.  There are many characteristics of the ideal recorder, but here are the most important ones.

  • Impartiality: The recorders should not color what they are documenting with their own viewpoint. The process becomes contaminated if the content ceases to belong to the participants.
  • Accuracy: The recorders should record in the participants’ own words. Rewording invalidates the participants’ contributions.
  • Legibility: The recorders should strive to make the output large enough and clear enough to be read by the participants. This includes changes of color or format when necessary.
  • Inclusiveness: The recorders should record everything, even if it is “off topic.”  The group can later decide if an idea needs to be reclassified or moved to a “parking lot.”
  • Knowledge: The recorders should familiarize themselves with the terminology of the business ahead of the facilitated sessions.  The concepts need to flow from mind to wall with minimal need to interrupt for explanation.
  • Flexibility: The recorders need to go with the flow and not get hung up on details such as spelling (which can be corrected later). Also, they need to understand that if the dynamics of a meeting so dictate, the facilitator may change the process from what the team rehearsed.  The recorders must be able to take the change in stride and support the new process.

Being the recorder for a meeting, whether facilitated or not, requires detachment from the meeting content in order to capture what is actually occurring in the room.  The recorder needs to understand the level of detail required in the documentation for that particular circumstance.  Following the meeting, the recorder needs to complete and submit the documentation for distribution as soon as possible so that the results may be validated by the participants and stakeholders.

Meeting planning consists of much more than cranking out an agenda.  Meeting documentation is one of the key considerations in preparing for and leading a meeting process.  At the minimum, it should reflect decisions, issues, and accountabilities that resulted from the meeting. At the end of a facilitated process, it also needs to reflect group input and consensus at each stage of the process in order to support the process outcome.  In this, skilled recording is essential.

Let us return to our drama which began above.  You get the idea from what was said that in the prior meeting the team had followed a productive process even in the absence of a facilitator.  Nevertheless, the value of the work and accomplishment of that meeting was lost.  Let us look in again and see how Fred refloats his team’s sinking boat and sets it once again on course.

Fred:  Hold on, everyone.  It’s clear that I’ve dropped the ball on this process.  We had a pretty effective meeting on Monday, didn’t we?

Cheryl:  I thought so.

Dablu:  Me too.

Fred:  Well, by failing to preserve the output of that meeting we’ve lost pretty much everything we did together.  So here’s what I propose we do.  I’ll adjourn this meeting and reschedule for early next week.  In the meantime, I’ll talk to the Project Management Office and contract for a Recorder and a Scribe.  When we meet next week, we’ll see that everything gets recorded so that we can always pick up right where we left off.  The Recorder will get everything down on flipcharts and butcher paper and the Scribe will get everything else.  We’ll publish the meeting notes within twenty-four hours of the meeting and at subsequent meetings we’ll rehang any relevant output from the preceding meetings.  Does this make sense?

Oscar:  It does to me.

[All heads nod agreement.]

Fred:  Right, then.  Thanks, everyone.  Meeting adjourned.


Do you employ dedicated recorders in your meetings?  How does your organization determine the level of meeting documentation required?