One thing that drives me crazy is when people ask me for a meeting, and then arrive at my office, ask me lots of questions (which I patiently answer), and then leave without taking a single note. Inevitably, I will get an email from them a few weeks later asking me about something I said because they didn’t write it down.
Not only is it a bad use of my time to answer questions that the listener won’t remember, but it’s inefficient for them too – it’s essentially taking the time of two meetings to process the information of one meeting. So how can this be avoided? Simple: take notes, every time.
It’s easy to write off taking notes. Sometimes you’ll go into a meeting thinking. “This is so important, there’s no way I’ll forget the answer!”, and while you may remember the big picture points of the meeting, it’s easy to let minor details and explanations slip through the cracks. You’ll remember the goal for next quarter is to increase sales, but you won’t remember how you were supposed to do i
I take copious notes. It helps me pay attention and stay engaged in the conversation.
By taking notes I can capture ideas that would otherwise be lost in the ether; I can organize my thoughts, record answers to my questions, and remember important action items. (It also shows people that I care about what they are saying.)
I seem to forget everything I don’t write down, so I find that taking notes is particularly important when I am running from meeting to meeting and changing contexts. Taking notes is like leaving a mental trail of breadcrumbs. You don’t have to try to memorize every detail from a meeting as it’s happening (which is hard when you’re moving across contexts over the course of a few hours). Instead, the notes you take serve as a map back to that task when you finally have time to stop and process it.
Taking good notes has a lot to do with personal style, but just doing it at all will automatically improve your overall effectiveness and your image too. Here are some general guidelines that can take a non-note-taker from forgetful rookie to successful pro almost immediately.
First Things First: The Basics
No matter what your note-taking style, these guidelines will keep you organized and on track.
- Take notes on paper. Don’t put a computer screen between you and the other person; you won’t engage with them as well, and as we all know by now, building trust and relationships matters.
- Always use the same format. I find having one notebook that I always use to take notes on helps keep things organized later. There’s nothing worse than having some notes on your computer, some in your personal notebook, some on a random legal pad somewhere on your desk…
- Abbreviate when possible. But don’t overdo it, either! Save time and keep up with the discussion by abbreviating when you can (turn “profits” into $$; write initials instead of someone’s full name), but don’t go so far that you won’t be able to decipher your notes later.
- Revisit your notes afterwards. A surprising number of people will take notes in a meeting and then never look at them again. Whether it’s going through and summarizing your notes on paper or typing them up into a Word document, going through your notes will cement the information in your mind and help you solidify key elements.
- Keep it simple and consistent. Put the date and who you met with at the top of the page – and you’re good. Over time you’ll have an easily referenceable catalog of notes you can refer to with ease. If you store your notes electronically, add tags or other searchable notes for faster access.
- Organize. Highlight action items and other important details so they stand out later. Don’t assume you’ll remember what the most important parts are.
Find Your Format
Finding the most effective way to take notes may take some trial and error before you perfect your technique. Below I’ve listed a few of the most popular strategies out there (but by no means is it a complete list!) for anyone who wants to start taking notes, or for veteran note-takers thinking of improving their current practices.
You can try each one, or take a bit from every technique and blend them together in a way that works best for you.
If you’re already a note-taker, you’re probably also a list-maker. Most people tend to take notes this way, writing down important information as it is discussed, moving down the page to create a list of relevant details.
An organized list will have at the top:
- the meeting topic
From there, move down the page noting pertinent information including:
- action items
- to-do tasks
- decisions made (and why)
- pertinent project details/resourcesUse symbols as you go to make important points stand out (like action items or areas where you have questions) so that when you review your notes later, they stand out. Some people like to make separate lists for every kind of topic (action items, resources, etc.) as they go, and others prefer to organize and make sense of their notes after the meeting.
The Mind Map
I have traditionally been a list-making note-taker, but recently I have tried to work mind maps into my meeting strategy. Lists can sometimes get overwhelming and out-of-order as meetings touch on topics, then move along, then loop back to something from earlier. Mind maps enable you to block out space for a topic and return to it later if necessary without confusing the order of your notes. (This article is a great tool for getting better organized by using mind maps.)
A mind map starts with the main topic of a meeting written at the center of the page. As the discussion moves along, you add branches coming out of the center to reflect a subtopic.
If the center of the mind map is “Sales”,
you may draw branch out for “Customer Outreach”
From the “Customer Outreach” branch, there may be further smaller branches for
And so on, adding new branches from the center for new main topics, all originally radiating from the main topic of “Sales” at the center.
This visual tool is really helpful for quickly revisiting the main points of a meeting. Rather than scanning a potentially long list of details and side-notes, a mind map gives you access to main topics and actions fast.
The Trail of Breadcrumbs
If you get anxious in meetings, it’s easy to be so caught up in your own stress that you leave with only a vague sense of what you just went over. Same goes if you’re just easily distracted. Taking really thorough, extensive notes is a fantastic cure for trouble focusing in meetings for two reasons:
- It gives you something to do with your hands and a task to focus on.
- It allows you to revisit the meeting later when your head is clearer.
I think of this strategy as taking notes for someone who wasn’t in the meeting and who will have to take action based on your notes alone. Imagine that this person will have only your notes to go on, so give as much detail and context for everything as possible. For best results:
- Use short phrases to note anything important (if you’re not sure, write it down)
- Make your notes specific
- Don’t just focus on the “headline” ideas but also add:
- any resources that were suggested
- processes you’ll need to complete
- specific tools to use, etc.
Don’t forget to make a little eye contact with your peer during the meeting, but no one will take offense to your taking what they say so seriously, and they’ll appreciate it immensely when you don’t need them re-explain the project to them two days later. This isn’t the most efficient strategy, but if you find that you’re not retaining enough information after meetings, this will do the trick.
These notes can easily be streamlined and turned into more organized lists or mind maps after your meeting. You can also save the long-form notes in case you need to check details in the future.
No matter how good your memory is, nothing can beat a tangible record of a meeting for getting details after the fact. Your peers will have more confidence in you not only for taking meetings seriously, but also for having accurate information to complete projects without needing repeated guidance.
How do you take notes? Do you use any of the strategies above, something completely different, or a combination? Feel free to share in the comments any tips or tricks on how notes have helped your career.