Stop Wasting Time in Meetings - The PM's Guide to Writing Killer Summaries

Stop Wasting Time in Meetings: The PM’s Guide to Writing Killer Summaries

As a person who often starts and leads projects of different complexity, I deal with dozens of meetings during the week. Regardless of the type of the project, whether it is a marketing campaign, website or app creation, organizing an event, or just one-on-one with your teammates, written communication plays a key role in helping organize and manage processes smoothly. One of the tools that help me achieve project goals, and capture important decisions and knowledge is meeting summaries.

Today I would like to share my formula for writing an effective meeting summary. But before diving in, let’s understand why meeting summaries are important.

Why it’s important to have a summary by the end of the meeting?

  1. Ensures alignment and shared understanding. A meeting summary helps ensure that all attendees are on the same page about key discussion points, decisions made, and next steps. This alignment and shared understanding is critical to project progress and success.
  2. Captures key highlights and next steps. Meeting summaries capture the most important highlights, conclusions, next steps, and responsible parties. This helps keep teams accountable and progressing. Without a summary, key actions can easily fall through the cracks.
  3. Provides a record for future reference. Meeting summaries serve as a reference for attendees and a record for those not present. They provide context that can be referred back to at any point. This is particularly important for complex projects with many interconnected parts.
  4. Improves efficiency. Effective meeting summaries that clearly capture key highlights, decisions, and next steps help avoid wastage of future meeting time rehashing previous conversations or decisions. The team can move forward efficiently.
  5. Supports knowledge management. For project-based organizations, meeting summaries add to the knowledge base and institutional memory. They capture key concepts, approaches, and decisions that can be leveraged for future projects.

Who is responsible for writing a summary of the meeting?

The one who is organizing the meeting is responsible for providing the summary of the meeting.

How to structure a meeting summary?

There is no single way of structuring the summary, but there are best practices that can be used to make the summary more useful and effective.

  1. Write a headline of the summary before you start, it can be the goal of the meeting and the date of the meeting, you can also include the list of attendees.
  2. Group talking points by participants and their roles. Consider how many stakeholders and participants attending the meeting and their roles. Someone who needs to be aware of the topic, someone who you report to, someone who is reporting to you, or someone who should take some action after it. Maybe there is someone who is reporting and should take some action. Consider your audience’s needs and group them.
  3. Group talking points by stakeholders. Let’s say you are a freelancer providing services to a client. Then you can write a summary divided into what should be done by you as a service provider and what should be done by your client.
  4. Group talking points by topics. Let’s say as a freelancer you are working on a website for a client. Another way is to write a summary by grouping the changes or actions that you can take on the specific pages. For example: Here is what we’ve discussed related to The home page, About Us page, contact us page, etc
  5. Use CTA — effective summary standouts when it includes CTA (Call To Action). For any follow-up tasks generated during the meeting, note each action item, who is responsible, and the deadline. This ensures accountability. 
  6. Include decisions and agreements that were made during the meeting in the summary. Decisions are made almost at every meeting. It’s important to Include decisions in the summary as well in the separate block or group, even if it does not require further action. For example, you can write: Here is what we decided or Here is what we agreed on.
  7. Questions or issues unresolved. Capture any important questions, issues or decisions that remained unresolved in the meeting. This can include minority opinions. Note that they will need to be addressed at a future meeting.
  8. Use numbers instead of bullet points in case you have more than 3 points for each group, it will allow you to refer to specific points immediately.
  9. Consistency. Write the summary in the same place every time, whether it’s in email, in Slack, discord, or Teams channel, or on the whiteboard. Keep the same format for all your summaries with the same stakeholders. If you decided to write in a certain way, keeping the same structure of the summary will help others to capture and read faster.
  10. Next meeting. Include the place, format and time of the next meeting if the goal of the meeting is not reached or you don’t have a clear outcome or the scope of the project requires multiple meetings.
  11. Share and distribute the summary. Send the meeting summary to all attendees for review as well as any critical stakeholders who did not present the same day, or latest 1 day after. Request feedback on any inaccuracies and make revisions as needed before distributing the final summary broadly.
  12. Ask for confirmation, in case you conduct a meeting where some important decision was made and you look for approval or confirmation, it’s helpful and allows you to eliminate risks of miscommunication by asking for confirmation, especially when money and financial decisions are involved.

Template to use:

Meeting headline, goal, date

  1. Agreed on following
    – AAA decision was made and we are moving forward in this direction
    – BBB idea was not accepted and we will need to come back to it after CCC happens
    – The budget for the project was increased from NNN to MMM after a discussion with X, confirmed by W
  2. My team to do
    – person X, do this, by this date, in case of questions ask Y
    – person Y, follow up with Z, by this date, in case of questions contact W
    – person Z, provide files to X by this date, in case of questions ask W
  3. Your team to do
    – person x, contact to supplier and ask for a 20% discount
    – person y, prepare documents for the accountant by this date and create a report for the CPO by this date
  4. Next meeting date, time, place or format, agenda, homework for participants

Note: It’s up to you how to structure the summary, you just need to keep in mind your project goals and write the summary in a way that will contribute to achieving your project goal.

“A short pencil is better than a long memory.” – It is difficult to remember every detail discussed in a meeting. Summaries provide a written record so no information is forgotten. 

Bonus Advice: Practice BLUF in your communication

Here is another tool that will help you to move your written communication to the next level.

BLUF stands for bottom line up front. This structure starts with the conclusion to give readers a clear understanding of the document’s content and ultimate conclusion. Using this particular style is a good way to show your stance or position before you start discussing the details of how you came to that conclusion.

The BLUF Technique gives the conclusion of your information at the beginning, instead of a summary by saving the reader time to read the entire message or summary. This tool not replacing a summary but gives immediate understanding to your reader on the important decision made.

BLUF is a standard used in U.S. military communication to make messages precise and powerful.

How do you write summaries of your meetings? Or maybe you trust writing your summaries to AI assistants?
Feel free to share your thoughts!