At a previous job, I was the designated note taker for our weekly team meeting, and responsible for circulating the meeting notes to all the attendees afterwards.
With my pen and notebook in hand, I would furiously try to transcribe what every single person said, worried that I would miss an important detail or word. But this method of trying to record everyone verbatim was unproductive, not to mention really tiring.
I needed a method that could help me capture the multiple streams of topics and conversation of a work meeting.
By researching this topic, I learned that not only is it beneficial to be a good note taker at work, but note taking is a skill that will come in handy throughout your life.
Some key benefits of note taking include:
Productivity. Whether you’re a corporate professional, freelancer, or student, a good note taking system is integral to your success. Note taking is more than just jotting things down, it helps us retain information--information that we can then leverage to manage our tasks more efficiently. You don’t want to be on the phone with a client and then later have to jog your memory for what they asked for. You want to impress them, and that means getting the big picture and details right.
Project management. Note taking can also help you with project management. Not only do notes help you clarify your own role, but they can capture what other team members are doing, ensuring better coherence. By recording who’s who and the roles they play, you’ll be able to hit the ground running on your project.
Goal-setting. You can also use your notes to gather ideas for yearly goals. By keeping track of the things your organization is working towards, you’ll be able to forecast what you need to do to get ahead.
One-on-one meetings. Our bi-weekly meetings with managers are crucial in that it’s an opportunity to get their insight or gain approval on specific matters. But oftentimes, one-on-one meetings can easily get sidetracked and go without agenda. Plus, managers are busy people and they’re not always going to know the agenda items in advance. It’s often our job to come prepared. That’s where note taking comes in. By referencing notes from your last team meeting, you’ll have an arsenal of items that you can discuss. Plus, you might just impress your boss with your knowledge of what’s happening on the team and having your ear on the ground.
As you can see, note taking is a crucial skill that you can harness to enrich your future.
Luckily, there are several tried and true strategies you can use to improve your note taking. Whether you’re more of a visual learner or someone who likes to look at the big picture, you’ll be able to find a note taking style that suits you.
Create a system of note-taking strategies
First and foremost, you’ll want to design a note taking system and create a shorthand for common words or phrases so that you’re not writing down lengthy sentences all the time.
Below are some common note taking systems.
Choose what works best with your style and tailor them so that it makes sense to you. It also helps to have a notebook dedicated just for meeting notes or studying. I personally like to use my Ink+Volt Kunisawa notebook for note taking.
Symbols. When it comes to note taking shortcuts, math symbols are your friend. Some common ones include:
- -> next point
- = equals to
- : in relation to or compared to
- ~ approximately
For more note taking symbols, check out this guide here.
Colors. Some people like to use color pens and highlighters because it helps them distinguish key details and information. Keep your color coding simple and use 1-3 colors so that you’re not overwhelmed trying to remember what each color stands for.
Shapes and underlining. You can also organize information by placing boxes or headers around main topics or circling important details. Underline important words so that you encode it to memory as well as signal to the eye to look at it.
Abbreviations. Use initials instead of writing out people’s names. Use acronyms for organizations or tasks. Abbreviate common words like imp. instead of important or bc instead of because. Or ex. instead of example. For more suggestions, you can refer to this list of common note taking abbreviations.
You can also use our Ink+Volt notepads to provide framework and structure for your meeting notes. The one-on-one notepad would be great for meetings with managers. And the Dashboard pad would help you capture all the moving parts of a big project management meeting.
Cal Newport’s Question/Evidence/Conclusion note-taking strategy
Another note taking technique you can use is Deep Work author Cal Newport’s Question/Evidence/Conclusion framework.
According to Newport, the principal of Q/E/C is this: “instead of transcribing exactly what the professor says, capture the big ideas.”
So the next time you’re at a meeting or a lecture, see if you can identify the big picture item or driving question. Maybe the question is: “how can we make this product cater to professional creatives?” Or “how can we migrate a special in-person event to an online platform?”
Next, identify the conclusion. To use the product example, it might be something like “we need to survey more users.” Or, “we need to make the product appeal to project managers.”
Finally, add the salient details that connect the question and the conclusion. If your meeting is about a product rollout, jot down the key details related to that product or the action items involved.
Structuring your notes in this manner helps you remember information in a more logical way. The big picture will logically relate to the conclusion, and the details will be the bridge that connects the two.
This note taking method would work well for academic lectures or analytical meetings or even brainstorming sessions.
Listen for cues
Most speakers will organize their lecture or presentation in a way that indicates when a new point is being made or when evidence is going to be laid out. Listen for verbal cues such as:
- Here are 5 ways you can achieve that...
- Let’s move on to…
- Next we have...
- Here’s another thing...
These may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often we find ourselves writing down transitional phases or even tuning out during these pivotal moments. Try to be mindful of these popular phrases so that you can record the next topic in your notes along with key details or action items.
Look out for salient details
Whether it’s a 30 minute meeting or a 2-hour workshop, chances are you’re going to lose focus and drift off every now and then. That’s only natural and our attention spans can only absorb so much. In addition to listening for verbal cues, the trick is to pay attention during the key moments of your meeting. Here’s how:
Most meetings tend to fall under the same categories. You have brainstorming meetings where you pitch ideas or forecast goals. You have deep dive meetings where you problem-solve or clarify roles/responsibility. You have weekly team meetings where you identify action items and delegate tasks. Or debriefing meetings that usually conclude with action items and next steps.
When you know the type of meeting you’re in, you can be mindful of the salient details that accompany such meetings and find a method for capturing them.
Brainstorm meetings: In these meetings, you’ll find lots of mind maps and flip charts with lists. It will be difficult trying to record every detail, so it’s probably best to take photographic evidence throughout the meeting or at the end of it.
Deep dive meetings: Be on the lookout for project deadlines, roles, responsibilities. You don’t have to record every single suggestion or proposal, but if the room comes to a consensus on certain items, you definitely want to record it in your notes.
Weekly status meetings: Take note of action items, delegation, and deadlines.
Debriefing meetings: Capture the big picture idea and next steps, especially if they involve you and your team.
You can mix and match these methods in order to find the best one for you. And, lastly, remember to review your notes regularly. This will help you refresh your memory, which is why you’re taking notes in the first place, and also assist you in creating a consistent note taking system.