A while back, I wrote an article for my project management colleagues on how elevating your note-taking skills can improve the efficiency of running your project.
After attending several writers’ conferences the past few years, and being asked to share my notes, I’m revisiting this article, with an update to include conferences and meetings. Other than taking attendance, for example, the same principles apply.
Note: For this article, I will use the terms “meeting” and “conference session” interchangeably, and will distinguish the two when needed.
Here are my tips and tricks for taking good notes.
Choose Your Medium
Most articles about taking notes say handwritten notes help you retain things better. However, I think you need to find what works for you. The important part is what information you capture, not how you captured it.
Pen and paper don’t work for me. I type faster than I write and can capture more information on my laptop than I ever will with pen and paper. But, I have a process in place. Taking the notes is the first step. After the meeting or conference session, I review, organize, and rewrite my notes, which is where I absorb what I’ve taken in.
My point here is to use the method that works best for you.
Prepare Ahead of Time
One of the best tricks to effective note-taking is to do as much organization as possible before the meeting so you can focus on actual content during the meeting.
I like to set up my notes document ahead of time and include known information regarding the session (metadata) in a separate section, usually at the top.
For conference sessions, I document the same information you would in your bibliography or resource reference:
- Session title
- Conference name
- Links to the presenter’s website or resources provided for the session
For meetings, I capture:
- Meeting subject
- Expected attendees
- Links to external resources or documents
- Meeting agenda
PM Tip: If you are managing a meeting, make sure you keep track of the attendees as they check in.
- Sometimes it’s important to know who was present and who wasn’t when certain decisions were made.
- You’ll find your project meetings get more participation when the invitees know you’re taking attendance. (Sly, but effective!)
Before the session begins, eliminate all distractions.
- Refill your water / drink.
- Use the restroom ahead of time.
- Unless you are expecting a very important call, turn off your phone. (A vibrating phone can distract as much as a ringing one.)
- If you’re using your laptop, disable email notifications and set your instant messaging to Do Not Disturb.
- Sit where you can see and/or hear what is being presented without issue.
During the Meeting
What to Capture
During the session, you want to capture the main points and key ideas. Don’t worry about capturing everything discussed. If you try to do that, you will miss something important.
Below are some examples of what to capture for sessions versus meeting.
For conference sessions:
- Key ideas. Hopefully, the agenda will tell you what key ideas are being covered.
- Powerful quotes. Presenters often use stand out quotes and one-liners to emphasize their points.
- Examples. Often speakers will use analogies to drive home their points. These are tricky to capture, but if you can easily write something that reminds you of the analogy they used, it can help drive the point home later when reviewing your notes.
For business meetings:
- Decisions that are made.
- Action items, including who is responsible for it and the due date for completion.
- Tabled items, or topics that are mentioned, but set aside for another time.
- Controversial items discussed. It is useful to capture the major disagreements, and any contingencies agreed to, along with the final decision and who made it. This comes in handy if the topic arises again.
- Beginning and Ending times of the meeting, which can go in the metadata section of your notes. This information can help determine trends, such as starting on time and finishing early.
- Other information that needs to be documented.
How to Capture Information
People talk faster than you can write or type. There are some simple tricks you can use to help capture information faster. Remember, your live notes are a first draft, which you will clean up and flesh out later.
- Use bullet points and outline styles to keep things organized by topic. Don’t worry if something comes up out of sequence later in the discussion. You can rearrange it afterward during the cleanup process.
- Use partial phrases rather than full sentences. Include enough information that you can shape it later for the final draft.
- Use abbreviations and shorthand rather than writing out the full word (i.e., mgmt instead of management, rom-com instead of romantic comedy).
- Color code or use symbols in your notes to highlight things, such as key points, action items, decisions, and risks.
- Use digital media to capture information when necessary. Capture a screen shot during a presentation or use a camera to get a picture of the whiteboard for insertion into your final draft later.
- Create a separate section in your note document for questions that arise during the presentation so you can find them quickly for the Q&A part at the end.
- If you are a designated note-taker for a meeting:
- Ask questions if you didn’t understand or hear the speaker, because it is likely other people also missed what they said.
- Pay attention to body language of others in the meeting. If you notice sudden movement around the room (people fidgeting or adjusting their seating posture), ask the person to elaborate. This will either clarify or lead to further discussion.
My favorite note-taking tool is MS OneNote. It has a great tagging feature and allows you to set up custom tags. OneNote automatically assigns a shortcut key to the first nine tags, so you can apply them as you type.
Common tags I use in my project meetings are:
- To Do / Action (with a checkbox)
- Important (with a star)
- Decision (with a check mark)
- Risk (with a flag)
- Issue (with an exclamation mark)
- Question (with a question mark) – Often used during technical discussions where I might not fully understand if this is a key point. This lets me record the information and find it easily later.
- Answer (with a comment bubble) – Following the question asked.
Cleanup and Publication
Ask for Other Attendees’ Notes
I’m a big proponent of asking for copies of others’ notes. Any additional notes you get will enhance your own, as everyone focuses on different things, and they may have picked up something you missed. I usually offer them a copy of my completed notes in return when I’m finished “making them pretty.”
This is easier to do in a corporate environment than it is a conference, but it never hurts to try.
After the session, follow-up steps include:
- As soon as you can, review your notes and expand on anything that may seem fuzzy. Do this while it is fresh in your mind. You may not remember it correctly if you wait until later.
- Use others’ notes (if you have them) to clarify or add to the notes you captured.
- Use a standard format so your notes are consistent from meeting to meeting (or session to session).
- Organize notes by key points and rewrite any shortcuts or partial phrasing into full sentences and proper wording.
Additional steps for meetings or group note sharing:
- Send a draft to selected or all participants for review and ask for any modifications by a specific date and time. Remember, people are busy, so give a reasonable deadline. Let them know that if it needs no changes, this draft will become the final document.
- Once your final draft is ready, publish it via your company/group standards.
- Example: As part of my project communications plan, I configure an accessible place (either on SharePoint or in a shared network folder) where team members can access the documentation at their discretion. I publish the completed notes and notify the team they are available with an email containing both the link to their location and an attached copy of the document.
For project management, meeting notes can help keep your project on track by producing timely, organized information pertinent to the project management process. Knowing how to take good notes and turn them into solid documentation can help ensure that team members stay informed and project communications are open.
For creatives who are constantly learning and evolving, sessions and course notes can help keep your learning endeavors on track by organizing information pertinent to the topic at hand. Knowing how to take good notes can help you stay focused on your learning objectives and build a solid reference library to refer to when you need to revisit the basics.
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