Taking notes during meetings or interviews is critical. It enables us to capture, share, and reuse key information, and even reinforces the effectiveness of the note-takers themselves. But note-taking is tedious and often disposable—rarely putting all the contained information to use. What’s worse—research shows that taking notes digitally results in fewer insights, instead leading to verbatim text that isn’t digested, and weakening the cognitive processes of the note-taker.
Fortunately, despite the fact that note-taking styles are highly personal, there are some simple principles we can stick to when taking notes, to minimize the time commitment and maximize the impact—stemming both from research and from practice at companies like Bain.
Notes would be useless without the source of your information—so listen first, and take notes second. Try to understand what is being said, and why it’s being said—this helps make meetings more productive, and reduces repetition and misunderstandings. Blind transcription can be done by a machine these days.
2. Write key points, not verbatim words
Avoid writing what you hear verbatim—this creates weaker notes and weaker cognitive connectivity with the notes—and on top of it all, takes longer to write or type. Writing verbatim is sometimes hard to avoid, especially when taking notes digitally. Funnily enough, the reason that handwritten notes often result in better cognitive association for the note-taker is because it’s impossible to write notes by hand fast enough to capture what’s said verbatim, forcing the brain to (1) understand (2) write in shortened form.
To avoid writing verbatim: listen until you hear something important, then write it. This forces you to comprehend.
3. Use short bullets and sub-bullets
Bullets and sub-bullets have been shown to improve quality and understandability of notes: the Journal of Reading found that the most rigorously structured notes were of the highest quality and accuracy. Aiming for brief sentences, abbreviations, and symbols can increase your note-taking speed.
4. Highlight the most important points
As you type, highlight (or bold or underline) parts that are particularly important, that you might want to return to, for instance to include in an executive summary. These are also portions of your notes that you’ll automatically remember more easily—it’s a psychological result called the Von Restorff Effect.
Sapeum and Microsoft OneNote help in this by letting you highlight a line with a single shortcut (Ctrl + M for Sapeum). If you're writing by hand, you may be able to use different highlighter colors to denote different things (see "Add tags" below).
5. Add tags
Adding hashtags (eg #followup) and mentions (eg @susan) to sentences in your notes can have massive benefits to your ability to do something with your notes afterwards. (Often, notes go into a black hole after they’ve been written—we call these disposable notes.)
For instance, you may add #followup to a sentence that requires you to handle a follow-up after the meeting, or #later if you need to handle it in a few weeks’ time, or #trend for a market trend, or #pos for positive feedback from a teammate or customer.
What tags to use?
But the hard question is: what hashtags should you use? It’s best to define a core group of only ~5 hashtags that you’ll use over and over again in most of your notes. (In the world of qualitative research, this is called “deductive coding”.) That way, you won’t waste time trying to think of the best hashtag—you’ll be limited in choice. Don't do more than 5-10, because humans can only hold ~7 items in their short term memory.
Want some help defining your core ~5 hashtags? Try looking at your past meeting agendas or templates for some commonalities.
Tagging is often a feature of advanced qualitative research tools. Fortunately, Sapeum lets you add (and later filter by) hashtags—and even lets you add your core hashtags with a keyboard shortcut.
6. Capture your own thoughts (but separate them)
While you’re listening, you’ll have reactions, ideas, questions. If important, write these down, so you can bring them up in the meeting—or after the meeting, if there isn’t time. But make sure to separate these thoughts from the rest of the notes, otherwise you may muddy the notes.
How to keep thoughts separate?
If writing by hand: write these thoughts into the margin of your notebook.
If writing digitally: tag these thoughts as #thoughts. A tool like Sapeum can show you these #thoughts in a sidebar for quick reference. Alternatively, just have a separate section at the bottom of your notes called “Thoughts” and write them there.
7. If you are speaking or leading, show you are engaged
It’s hard to take notes while also leading a meeting. You’re not Superman—if you are the only person on the call, you have to compromise, by taking short pauses to write after you’ve listened and spoken. Pauses help you stay on top of the meeting, instead of constantly being one step behind.
You can greatly ease any "awkwardness" of these pauses by showing that you are engaged. For instance, nod your head and communicate verbally—"yes", "that makes a lot of sense", "that's very interesting, let's return to that later".
8. Review for a quick minute (before and after)
Ask questions like: How do the main ideas fit together into a "bigger picture"? How do these ideas fit in with what I have already learned? What do I agree with? What do I disagree with? Which ideas are clear? Which are confusing? What new questions do I have? (Cornell note-taking system)
It's also a chance to add extra context or metadata to further enrich your notes and make them easily usable in the future. Perhaps add document-level tags, like "monthly-ops-all-hands" or "customer-interview". (Remember—research has shown more structured notes lead to highest quality and accuracy.)
Spend 1-2 minutes just before any subsequent meeting reviewing past meeting notes/insights. (You can also review notes in aggregate every week or two.) A tool like Sapeum can help with this, for instance looking at all highlighted #pain sentences across all your notes:
Ultimately, we take notes so we can do something useful with that information. While there’s no magic potion for listening, understanding and keeping good, concise notes—it takes practice, discipline, and the right tools for your team's workflow—hopefully following these principles will help you create notes that are usable while still true to your personal style.
Want to turn your notes and documents into actionable and shareable insights, with blazing speed? Try Sapeum, and unlock the knowledge in your documents.
This is a cross-post with our parent company, Gaussian.