red pencil erasing mistake on white paper; concept of wordsmithing a motion in parliamentary procedure

How to Avoid Wordsmithing a Motion During a Meeting

Every group has members who like to wordsmith. And to be fair, we all benefit from the skill that those folks bring to the table. But taking time to language-police a motion during a meeting often isn’t the best use of the group’s time—especially if the wordsmithing involves only grammar and punctuation. In other words, seeking recognition in the middle of a discussion about the pros and cons of an idea and moving to amend by striking the Oxford comma isn’t . . . well, it just isn’t cool. Here’s the good news: There’s a timely and appropriate way to satisfy that member, ensure your motions are well-worded and grammatically correct, and, importantly, not waste members’ time.

Tip 1:  Plan Ahead and Draft Motions Before the Meeting Starts

Most of the time, business meetings are not surprise parties—at least as to the substance of what the group will do. Yes—what people say in the discussion time is always an interesting surprise! But when you walk into a meeting, the agenda is pretty set so that the leadership knows almost all of the items of business that will be discussed.

New business is the one outlier. So, why not plan ahead and preemptively draft language for all of the motions that are certain or likely to be introduced on those topics? You could even go a step further and draft a couple of backup options that include amendments you anticipate certain individuals might make.

Taking time to draft language ahead of the meeting allows you to (1) craft a well-worded motion, (2) check with key stakeholders to ensure that the language reflects their intent, and (3) head off at the pass needless “tweaking” of the motion in real time during the meeting. (Remember—efficiency is a core value of running meetings with order.)

Many members of boards and organizations don’t write motions on the regular, and frankly, most of them are not skilled at drafting a motion “on the spot” in a meeting. And that’s completely ok. After all, they weren’t recruited to the board because they were expert motion drafters.

So, if you’re a staff member or otherwise involved in preparing for the meetings of your organization, bake in some time to develop initial drafts of the main motions that will come up, and then circulate those drafts to the individuals who will make those motions and to other key stakeholders. Once you have their buy-in on the wording, punctuation, etc., either add the draft language to the agenda or have the language ready for easy reference during the meeting. 

And, one other note: If you have an idea that is not ready to be presented as a motion and needs some discussion time first—there is one other helpful alternative. It’s called a “motion to consider informally”—and it’s the perfect way to let everyone talk through things a bit and delay the pressure of formulating a motion on the spot.

Tip 2:  Adopt a Motion That Authorizes Staff To Make Editorial Changes to Motions or Documents

Your group can adopt a motion that gives staff authority to make editorial changes to motions or to documents that are amended—e.g., bylaws or policies. Any group has two options regarding this type of motion:

  • A group can adopt this type of motion at a single meeting to apply to the motions adopted at that meeting.
  • Or, a group can adopt this type of motion as a special rule that applies to motions adopted at any meeting.

Here is some sample motion language:

I move that [organization name] staff be authorized to correct article and section designations, punctuation, and cross-references, and to make such other technical and non‑substantive conforming changes in the [motions adopted at this meeting OR bylaws] as may be necessary to reflect the intent of the [Board of Directors OR delegate body OR members of this organization]. 

There’s nothing overly sacred about this sample language. It’s just wording that I’ve found to work well for a variety of groups. But if you decide to use it, adjust it as needed so that it’s worded in a way that accommodates your group well.

Also, two key points about this type of motion:

  • The motion does not allow the staff to make substantive changes. The authorization is meant strictly for editorial changes.
    • Substantive changes have to do with the ideas and concepts of the bylaw or motion—the what, where, when, and how. An authorizing motion like this does not allow staff to alter those main points of a motion or bylaw. Adjusting content would require an amendment.
    • Editorial changes are precisely what this motion does allow—and those are alterations like adding punctuation for correctness or clarity, or making the content grammatically correct, or updating section designations.
  • If you’re going to use this type of motion for a specific meeting and not as a special rule, make sure you adopt it at the beginning of the meeting so that you can reference it when someone attempts to make an editorial amendment to a motion on the floor.

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