Tuesday August 28, 2012
Writing the minutes
By ALISTAIR KING
Who will take the minutes?” asks the chairman.
If you happen to be the youngest or most junior member of the meeting, and especially if you happen to be female, you will be the one! That’s the way things seem to work. This is a scenario that many people dread. It needn’t be so terrible.
The person who takes the minutes is often called the “recording secretary”. This, however, is not an accurate term. So, what does the secretary do at the meeting?
I was once at a meeting where the sales manager did not like a proposal that was put forward.
As his face turned from light magenta to deep crimson, he said, rather loudly, “I think this suggestion is a pile of rubbish, absolute rubbish!”
This utterance was accompanied by two thumps on the table. If the gentleman who was taking the minutes that day was recording, he would have written: “The sales manager said: ‘I think this suggestion is a pile of rubbish, absolute rubbish!’”
It would have been easier, as is the case in some meetings, to set up a video camera in the corner of the room and record the meeting!
So how should the meeting be reported?
Using reported speech, it goes like this: “The sales manager said that he thought that the suggestion was a pile of rubbish.”
Notice the backshifting of the verbs to bring them in line with the introductory verb said. The reported version, though true to what took place in the meeting, would be a shock to the reader.
So, if the secretary does not record and does not report, what does the secretary do? What the secretary does, I suggest, is interpret.
The secretary has to evaluate the utterances during the meeting and interpret them in a manner which brings the right focus and priorities to the points presented.
In the above case, the secretary asked me after the meeting, “How am I going to minute what he said?”
Incidentally, the sales manager didn’t say “rubbish”; he said a shorter word which I would never write and which The Star would never publish!
The advice that I gave the secretary, who was a young chap just out of university, was not to write what he said, but to write what he did.
The secretary replied, “He banged the table; that’s what he did. I can’t write that!”
I explained that, whenever we speak there is something we do. I asked him what the sales manager did: criticise, oppose or disagree. Being diplomatic, he chose “disagree”.
“But,” I asked, “How would you interpret two bangs on the table?”
He thought for a moment and proudly said, “The sales manager strongly disagreed with the proposal.”
The two bangs were interpreted as “strongly”. He was so happy with this that I didn’t feel I should tell him to use the Passive Voice!
Incidentally, someone must have liked the sales manager’s direct approach; he is now CEO of a multinational, based in Hong Kong!
On Aug 21, in this Right For Business column regarding Active Voice vs Passive Voice, we considered the difference between: The assistant manager opposed the proposal and The proposal was opposed by the assistant manager.
What do we want to place into focus, the speaker or what he/she contributes? The agenda item indicates issues to be considered rather than the people who attend the meeting.
Thus, please use the second, Passive Voice, version of each of the following pairs:
1) The senior accounts executive provided a summary of the previous month’s expenditure. (x)
A summary of the previous month’s expenditure was provided by the senior accounts executive. (Correct)
2) The production manager stressed the need for revised maintenance procedures. (x)
The need for revised maintenance procedures was stressed by the production manager. (Correct)
Finally, if you really need to write about the table-banging, please do use the Passive version: “The table was banged twice.” and, in this case, DON’T say by whom!
■ Dr Alistair King is an applied linguist and corporate training consultant with clients throughout the region, the Middle East and Southern Africa. He would value feedback to: email@example.com or aksb.com.my