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Book Summary: Robert’s Rules of Order – Using Parliamentary Procedure for More Efficient Meetings

Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (2020) is the 12th and only current authorized edition of the widely accepted standard reference for parliamentary procedure, replacing all previous editions that date to 1876. It outlines principles and guidelines that establish equal rights among members of deliberative and decision-making groups to improve the fairness and efficiency of meetings.

Introduction: Improve your meetings with a rule book trusted over seven generations

“That meeting should have been an email.”

You’ve probably had that thought before, especially when a meeting has gone off the rails. It may have lasted longer than expected with nothing decided. Perhaps tempers flared. You may even have left the meeting still confused as to what it was even about.

Unproductive, even contentious meetings are an age-old problem, but they don’t have to be. You’re about to learn how to tackle them with a set of rules developed over a century ago. These aren’t your grandfather’s rules. At their core, they’re much older.

Rewind to 1876 when Henry M. Robert published the first version of what eventually became Robert’s Rules of Order. Robert was an Army engineering officer who began studying parliamentary procedure 13 years before. What prompted his interest? In short, being asked to lead a meeting that turned into a mess. Given the time period in America’s history, it’s obvious now how important it was for states and localities to find common ground as they worked together. While the concept of parliamentary procedure had crossed the ocean from England, there were still critical differences between groups when it came down to the actual rules they chose to adopt.

You don’t need a time machine or a deep history lesson to understand how useful Robert’s Rules of Order can be today. You just need to know that it establishes agreement on one set of rules that keeps everyone clear on what’s being discussed, what can be done, and how to treat one another in the process. After all these years, the guidelines remain the top authority on parliamentary procedure among local governments, organizations, and other membership groups throughout the US.

Robert’s Rules of Order is intended to be a highly detailed reference that answers how to handle just about every meeting scenario. While we obviously can’t cover every one of them in this summary, you’ll get an introduction to the basics, including the main principles of the rules and how they work throughout the course of a meeting. Once you know, you’ll be well on your way to keeping your own meetings moving along fairly, justly, and efficiently.

Book Summary: Robert's Rules of Order - Using Parliamentary Procedure for More Efficient Meetings

Fairness and order ensure every group member has equal rights

Have you ever been in a meeting where one person did all the talking and you couldn’t get in a word edgewise? What about a situation where just a couple of people in the group pulled rank to take action everyone else was against? These are two big issues that Robert’s Rules of Order can solve. It starts with its principles.

First, every member of the organization has equal rights to participate in the meeting. That includes attending, bringing topics before the group, sharing their thoughts on the topic at hand, and voting. These rights apply to every topic, whether it’s an idea for consideration or an issue having to do with the meeting itself. Second, the majority vote wins.

An orderly meeting structure built on these principles ensures fairness and, ideally, efficiency. For example, only one topic can be considered at a time. Then, each member may share their thoughts on it at least once before another member speaks to it a second time. Further, no one can interrupt unless the matter is truly urgent.

Sound like a dream?

Before we get into details of how it works, it’s a good time to consider a few things you must establish before you can apply what you’ll learn next. First, your organization must formally adopt Robert’s Rules of Order as its parliamentary authority and state that in its bylaws. There’s no use in having rules if no one is committed to following them. Also, keep in mind your own bylaws will have authority over Robert’s Rules of Order, as do any state or federal laws. These rules are meant to enhance what you already have in place.

You must also decide on what constitutes a quorum – the minimum number of people required at a meeting to take any official action for the group. In addition, you must designate a presiding officer and a secretary; both must be present for meetings to proceed. The presiding officer, also called the chair, should know the rules – inside and out – so they can be an effective referee. The chair is also responsible for developing the agenda prior to each meeting, which the board votes to adopt at the start of each meeting. The secretary takes clear and careful notes during the proceedings.

As you might imagine, there are many more details about best practices for bylaws and the roles of the chair and secretary. For now, knowing these essentials is most important to exploring how things flow in a meeting that follows Robert’s Rules. Next, we’ll look at how these meetings tick.

Members exercise their rights by proposing topics in the form of motions

Have you heard the song “I Second That Emotion,” sung by Smokey Robinson? Or maybe the versions made famous by Diana Ross & The Supremes or The Temptations? If so, you may never hear it the same way again, or at least not without thinking of Robert’s Rules of Order. Bet you never stopped to think how that 1960s Motown hit had a connection to parliamentary procedure. Robinson has said the song came from when cowriter Al Cleveland agreed with him on something, a clever turn on the common phrase, “I second that motion.”

Seconding a motion is when things really get moving in meetings. We just covered how only one topic is considered at a time during meetings, and you may be thinking about how you introduce the topic to start with. That’s where motions come in. A motion is simply proposing that the group act upon something. If there’s no other topic under consideration, any member can present a motion once acknowledged by the chair.

While a motion can be made by a sole member, in most cases, it takes a second member to support, or second it, for any further action to follow. If there’s no second, the motion fails, and the group moves on to the next item of business. When another member says, “I second that motion,” it puts the topic in play, or “on the table,” according to Robert.

The chair then serves as moderator for the debate. They must recognize anyone who wishes to speak and allow everyone just one turn before considering additional comments. Those who do speak must begin their thought with their intention, clearly stating whether they want to speak for or against the motion being discussed.

While the chair should always stay alert to members who want to speak, ideally you should submit any topics in advance to be added to the agenda’s “new business” section. But unless your bylaws say otherwise, it’s not required.

There are many different types of motions you can make. We’ll cover them next.

The three groups of motions are main, secondary, and renewal

Robert classifies motions into three broad categories. First, a main motion is the most common and is basically any topic that merits consideration by the group as new business. For example, it could be a request to make a donation to a charitable organization or select a particular park property for a community festival.

There are many motions considered secondary because they’re secondary to the main topic of discussion. Robert further breaks down secondary motions into three groups: subsidiary, privileged, and incidental. Let’s consider examples of each.

Subsidiary motions are those allowing members to propose doing something to the main motion, like postponing it, amending it, or referring it to a committee. We’ll cover this one a bit more later.

Privileged motions speak to the privilege of the group members to act on something that impacts the meeting itself, even if business is pending. These motions can be for things such as taking a recess, adjourning, or setting a specific time to adjourn if the meeting is running longer than expected.

Incidental motions come in handy whenever members want to raise objections, appeal a ruling by the chair, or suspend the rules entirely. They’re called incidental because they’re related to the item under discussion but impact the procedure, not the item of business itself.

Now we’ve covered the secondary motions that are subsidiary, privileged, and incidental, that leads us to the third broad category, which are renewal motions. Renewal motions are used for any situation where something must come back before the group for consideration.

Regardless of whether a motion is main, secondary, or renewal, every one of them must be dealt with before the meeting officially concludes. Next, we’ll look at voting.

Every motion must be handled before a meeting ends

Imagine never leaving a meeting again feeling like nothing was accomplished. With Robert’s Rules, you may not like all of the outcomes but you’ll at least see the wheels keep moving. Every motion brought to the group will see a fate of some kind before the meeting officially concludes. Depending on the type of motion, it gets a vote, or, in some cases, a ruling by the chair.

Now, sometimes meetings go quickly and smoothly. Debate over a motion might conclude in one round, if there’s any debate at all. Members cast their votes for or against the motion with an “aye” or “no,” respectively. As we covered earlier, the majority prevails, and the vote is recorded in meeting minutes.

As you know, real life is often messier than that. Let’s consider a few scenarios to explore the rules for when things are a bit tricky.

Say the debate is dragging on. You can make a motion to limit the debate, whether that’s in terms of the number of speakers allowed or with a time window. Another option is to move to close the debate entirely. Both of these motions require a two-thirds vote for approval.

Perhaps you want more information. You can move to postpone the motion to a specific time. It may be that you want a committee to review a motion and provide their expertise. You can move to refer to a committee.

Last, you may want to postpone something indefinitely for whatever reason, in which case, you move to “table” it.

As you can see, all of these motions require votes themselves and yet serve to keep the group moving through items of business as quickly as possible. With so many motions flying around, you may need a do-over vote every now and then. There’s a motion for that, and you can only propose it if it pertains to something for which you were part of the majority earlier in the meeting. If that’s the case, you can move to reconsider and bring the vote back as if the first one never happened, but you’ll need a majority vote to do it.

Another renewal motion is to change something voted on in a previous meeting. To do that, you can move to rescind the earlier item. You’ll only need a simple majority if you give notice in advance and a two-thirds majority if you don’t.

Once a group has moved through the agenda, typically the chair calls to adjourn the meeting. A meeting can adjourn with a specified time to continue it in cases where all matters haven’t been handled and must be in quick order. The only times meetings end with business on the table are when a preset ending time has been agreed upon beforehand, or some emergency occurs to stop the meeting.

And with that, here’s a motion to adjourn this summary.


Any organization can adopt a long-established set of meeting guidelines to ensure everyone has equal speech and voting rights in deciding what actions the group will take. With a quorum, knowledgeable presiding officer, and secretary, the group can follow standard procedures for efficient meeting structure, including open and fair debate that’s respectful of everyone’s time and input. And ultimately, when matters are decided, both the majority and minority feel heard and accomplished regardless of the outcome. Now you know the basics, you may consider putting Robert’s Rules of Order into action for your own organization.

About the author

Henry M. Robert III (1920-2019), grandson of General Robert, began his association with Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised in writing the 1970 edition and participated in writing six editions, culminating in this 12th edition. He served as parliamentarian of the National Association of Parliamentarians and multiple other national and international organizations. Daniel H. Honneman, a Maryland attorney, now retired, is a past President of the Maryland Association of Parliamentarians. Thomas J. Balch is a practicing parliamentarian who formerly acted as a Washington, DC-based lobbyist and legislative analyst. He has served as parliamentarian of the NAP. Daniel E. Seabold is a mathematics professor at Hofstra University specializing in logic and set theory. Shmuel Gerber, a professional parliamentarian and copyeditor, has served as the Assistant Editor of the National Parliamentarian.


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The only current authorized edition of the classic work on parliamentary procedure—now in a new updated edition

Robert’s Rules of Order is the recognized guide to smooth, orderly, and fairly conducted meetings. This 12th edition is the only current manual to have been maintained and updated since 1876 under the continuing program established by General Henry M. Robert himself. As indispensable now as the original edition was more than a century ago, Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised is the acknowledged “gold standard” for meeting rules.

New and enhanced features of this edition include:

  • Section-based paragraph numbering to facilitate cross-references and e-book compatibility
  • Expanded appendix of charts, tables, and lists
  • Sample rules for electronic meetings
  • Helpful summary explanations about postponing a motion, reconsidering a vote, making and enforcing points of order and appeals, and newly expanded procedures for filling blanks
  • New provisions regarding debate on nominations, reopening nominations, and completing an election after its scheduled time
  • Dozens more clarifications, additions, and refinements to improve the presentation of existing rules, incorporate new interpretations, and address common inquiries

Coinciding with publication of the 12th edition, the authors of this manual have once again published an updated (3rd) edition of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised In Brief, a simple and concise introductory guide cross-referenced to it.

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