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Becoming an Expert Scribe
2014, Q2 (May 05, 2014)
By Meredith Kinder, STC Associate Fellow

Meredith Kinder
Meredith Kinder
Most technical communicators cringe when asked, “Would you take notes at this meeting?” We can be pegged as great scribe candidates for silly reasons such as “Writers must be able to type quickly” or for serious reasons such as “You have great attention to detail.”

I often serve as a scribe at customer requirements workshops that occur at the beginning of consulting projects. Each team member attends these meetings. We are gathering requirements, understanding customer pain points, and architecting technical environments.

To enable each team member to focus on his or her individual contributions, I take note of discussions, jot down action items, and record decisions and reasons for the decisions. I’ve fulfilled this role for as many as 48 hours across four days at a customer site.

photo by Carl Dwyer
photo / Carl Dwyer

Even if you’re not enthused about the task, how can you make the best of the situation? How can you be on the top of your scribing game and add value to a room full of people making critical decisions and explaining essential processes?

A few tips:

  • To help identify what needs to be recorded in detail, pay attention to facial expressions and body language. People tend to slow their speech and raise their voices when making firm decisions and discussing important topics.
  • Understand how people talk and learn to ignore the noise. Once you have scribed a few meetings, it will become apparent who gets to the point and who uses 100 words when 10 will do. Understanding if someone’s style is wordy or repetitive will help you separate the wheat from the chaff so you can hone in on the essential information.
  • If you don’t understand the conversation, write down what is said word-for-word (or at least key phrases). Rather than paraphrasing or summarizing and possibly getting it wrong, simply record the exact words or phrases that are used. Chances are that if you don’t understand, others in the room do not as well. You can go back later and mull over exactly what was said in order to gain clarification.
  • Don’t worry if you miss something. Conversations often happen at the speed of light, and not everything is worth capturing. If you don’t want to interrupt the flow of the discussion to have it repeated, skip it.
  • Identify someone to help you clarify afterwards. If you do miss something that is important, but you still do not want to disrupt the flow of the conversation, knowing that you can ask someone later for clarification is helpful.
  • For long meetings or workshops, caffeine helps. So do sleep and healthy eating. Being a scribe is physically and mentally taxing, so prepare your body and mind by treating them right.
The next time you are asked to act as a scribe, approach it as a challenge. Let your notes prove that your ability to focus on the important details can enable other team members to do their jobs better.

Meredith can be reached at meredith dot kinder at sas dot com. End of article.

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