The Art of Note Taking

If note taking were an Olympic sport I think most people would rate themselves a medal chance. The truth is most people have no real technique to their note taking and more often or not they are simply overconfident in their ability to remember details that they “intend” to fill in later.

I’ve made a bit of a study of various note taking techniques and come up with my own guidelines, but the best lesson I ever had in note taking technique came from a Marist Brother who taught me physics in high school. Br Bennett insisted that we put our pens down, pay attention and make a real effort to comprehend whatever bite size factoid he was teaching at the time. Then he’d encourage some questions, then sit back and give us a minute or two to write down – in our own words – our understanding of what had just been discussed. Finally he’d have some of us read back what we’d written, followed by further discussion and further refinement of our notes.

Effectively he had orchestrated a perfect note taking environment for us. Here are some guidelines you might find allow you to recreate the Br Bennett note taking method in work meetings:

  1. Come to terms with the fact that your memory isn’t that good. If you really need to know what went down in a meeting days or weeks from now, then you have to get it down on paper.
  2. In some circumstances (e.g. a sales meeting) it may be appropriate to ask other people present if it is OK for you to take some notes.
  3. Now put your pen down and give the other people your full attention. Do not bury your head in your notebook and don’t attempt to take down every word.
    For a few minutes just have a discussion, listen carefully, ask some questions, and once you have a sound understanding of the key points…
  4. Control the pace of the meeting by requesting that everyone stops a moment to let you take down some notes before moving onto a new topic. If you’ve demonstrated that you are paying attention and are genuinely interested in the topic they’ll be only too happy to allow you to focus on your notes for a short time.
    Write the notes in your own voice. You’re not a courtroom stenographer.
  5. Use nice stationary. All forms of writing, even note taking, should be a pleasurable experience. I currently use a Lamy Safari fountain pen and a Field Notes brand notebook.
  6. By the way, unless your screen is displayed on a projector or turned to face the other participants, do not have an open laptop in front of you to take notes. It is rude and it is also almost impossible for the other people to believe that you are taking notes and not just checking your email. No good can come of it. (maybe an iPad would be accaptable if it is layed flat so that everyone can see the screen.)
  7. Finally make sure you read back some of your notes to the other people. It’s a great way to show you have understood and to clarify any points that you were unsure of.
  8. Immediately after the meeting put your notes in an email and send them to the participants. If you’ve been effective in taking good notes during the meeting this should be a simple matter.

How you structure your notes is your own business. I personally like to state key points and conclusions, including the rationale behind the conclusions then list actions at the bottom, each with a name against them. But I’m not a stickler for templates of that sort and I vary the structure of my notes according to what I think is appropriate for the culture of the meeting and the participants.

For me, note taking can be an enormously satisfying job, I get a real sense of closure on a meeting if I do a good job of taking notes. There are far to many meetings in the typical work day and I try and be selective about which ones I attend or organise, but when I’m committed to a meeting I like to think that attentiveness and skilful note taking are a mark of respect to the other people who have sacrificed their time to be there.