Does this sound familiar? You are in a meeting where the discussion seems to be going on without building towards a conclusion. You are not sure whether all the participants are even following the exchange. To top this off, you are only a participant and not leading this meeting. You can’t intervene to “fix” the discussion without taking on more responsibility than seems appropriate. Even in this situation, there is still one thing you can do to improve the discussion. You can use the approach I call Visible Note Taking.

Visible Note Taking simply means recording the progress of the group’s discussions on a surface all can see. Writing out notes of key comments and decisions where all can see them keeps the discussion on track. It also shows each participant that his or her comments were heard and recognized.

Strategic planning discussionExplain that you’d like to track the progress of the group’s discussion by keeping ongoing notes where all can see them. Then stand by the flip chart (or use your computer in a virtual meeting) and begin recording key points using the speaker’s words as much as possible. This supports the group’s memory of the discussion and shows how its decisions are evolving. Each participant can see that his or her comments are recognized. In other words, it helps the group see and “own” the progress of its discussion. If the discussion continues going in circles, someone will usually point to the notes and try to bring the group to some conclusion.

How to Apply Visible Note Taking

  • Maintain an ongoing record of comments, using each speaker’s words as much as possible. Some abbreviation of comments is fine as long as you capture the essence of what the speaker said.
  • Record the comments where all can see them. Best choice is usually a flip chart because you have multiple pages and the completed pages can be posted on a wall to keep them visible as you need more space. (Avoid just turning over pages on a flip chart, since this hides previous notes from the group’s sight.) A white board or black board can work as well, but you have to manage the notes to the space available.
  • You can also take notes on a computer, if you have an LCD projector to show your screen and the notes as they are entered. Using this same approach with a shared, on-line document means you can use Visible Note Taking to support a virtual meeting as well.

Leading Great MeetingsYou can learn more about ways to hold more effective meetings in my new book: Leading Great Meetings: How to Structure Yours for Success. The book is designed to help leaders structure more productive meetings by changing how they are structured to engage participants and manage task and time effectively. A structural approach makes it naturally easier to hold meetings that engage everyone and produce results while managing to the time available. The book explains 12 choices and 32 tools to plan and conduct a wide range of meetings—from team meetings to board meetings. You select from the choices and tools the ones relevant to your situation. There are stories, examples, even “blueprints,” so you can see how a structural approach works in action. For more information, see Leading Great Meetings or visit the Resources page at

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