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A Practical Guide to Taking Meeting Notes

Updated: Dec 14, 2022

In this guide, I’ll share three reasons why note-taking can advance your career and a three-step process to taking meeting notes like a pro.

Two people taking notes in a meeting

Taking notes during meetings is crucial for your success, though it can be daunting. Meeting notes are a simple and effective tool to keep you organized, focused, and informed. They are also invaluable for earning respect, building trust and staying focused to make the most of your meetings, and contributing to great teamwork.

Why Note-taking Will Supercharge Your Career

In this section, I’ll explain how note-taking drives successful meetings and three reasons why starting to take notes today will supercharge your career. I’ll also share some simple techniques that’ll have you taking notes like a pro in no time.

Reason 1: Taking Notes Earns Respect

When I walk into a conference room or hop on a Zoom call, it always makes me smile to see people taking meeting notes.

Why? In short: they're prepared. They stay engaged during the meeting. When the meeting is done, they take action to make sure the time was well-spent. This shows respect, and respect builds trust.

These are usually the folks who show up on time, ready to dive right in. They ask clarifying questions during the meeting to make sure they understand the goals and key points of the discussion. It's obvious when they've done their homework, having reviewed the agenda and material sent out in advance of the meeting.

They craft notes that suit their own needs but that they can also share with others. Because they’ve prepared, they can focus on what’s happening in real-time, listen for key insights and ask clarifying questions that fill in gaps in their understanding and advance the meeting toward its goals.

They follow through on action items when they're due. Rather than assuming someone else will assign tasks to them, they take responsibility for capturing the next steps and due dates for themselves and their teams. This prevents the dreaded "groundhog day" follow-up meeting, where half the time is spent rehashing things people "forgot" to do from the last one!

Okay, so that’s how it looks to others when you take notes, which might be enough to motivate you on its own. However, note-taking isn’t just about looking diligent.

Reason 2: Taking Notes Makes You Smarter

For the data-minded among you, consider the following:

For decades, researchers have shown that note-taking can improve information synthesis and recall for those who do it. This means you'll learn and remember more from the meeting if you take notes. Note-taking, by design, forces you to pick out the most relevant and useful information. This naturally improves your ability to focus and reduce unnecessary information or distractions.

Note-taking can also improve your memory. By actively engaging with the material via an activity such as note-taking, participants in this research study were better able to recall information immediately after and one week after exposure to it. Memory is key to building on ideas: you can’t be creative if you don’t remember the foundation on which you plan to create something.

Also, if you were wondering, the question of whether or not handwritten notes are more effective than typed ones is still open. Don't be railroaded into a system you aren't comfortable with. Use any method of note-taking that you find works for you.

The study has been cited in other peer-reviewed journals more than 1,200 times, according to Google Scholar, and it has been pointed to in op-eds and other popular articles as well. And it fits with the hunches of many "laptop skeptics," says Michelle D. Miller, a psychology professor at Northern Arizona University, "confirming that people write more and remember less when keyboarding." But there's one problem with the research, Miller points out. When other scholars have repeated the same experiment, they haven't been able to get the same result. Source: A Popular Study Found That Taking Notes By Hand Is Better Than By Laptop. But Is It?

Reason 3: Taking Notes Makes You a Better Teammate

Team building and trust are what I’ve built my career around. You can create and nurture trust, which is important in every relationship, with the simple act of note-taking. A team that uses notes effectively will be more cohesive and effective than a team that doesn’t.

Being a great note-taker provides your team flexibility. Imagine being able to send only one person to a meeting and allowing the rest of your teammates to get work done. Relying on that one person to share detailed notes is key to freeing up valuable time – and keeping meeting attendee lists to a minimum.

If you know teammates will want to reference your notes later, consider taking them in a note-taking app or scanning them so you can pass them around digitally. Remember to keep your team's needs in mind when taking notes, and capture the highlights and action items that pertain to them.

By showing how valuable notes can be, you will hopefully encourage your teammates to adopt the practice, and maybe one day, they’ll save you with some detailed notes of their own.

Now that you know why note-taking can boost your career, let’s get into how to take notes in a meeting. In the next section, I'll break down the process of taking notes before, during, and after a meeting, and I'll also share an example.


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Three Steps to Taking Meeting Notes

The first thing to know about note-taking is that it involves a certain amount of preparation. This means you’ll begin taking notes before the meeting starts. A great agenda often includes pre-read content or pre-work for you to complete before the meeting. Don’t ignore the opportunity to be prepared by doing your homework!

Step 1: Prepare Your Notes Before the Meeting

You can make your note-taking life easier by preparing your notes in advance. Consider the goal of the meeting, who will be attending, and what kinds of topics they’re likely to bring up. You can use this to prepare sections in your notes. Below, I’ve prepared an example heavily based on the Cornell note-taking system:

note-taking example

Notice that this looks highly similar to the agenda that the meeting’s host should have prepared in advance.

That’s no coincidence: your notes are your interpretation of the agenda and your thoughts about how you can best offer value to others and get what you need by attending. It’s a record of your personal experience of the meeting and the information you deemed most important.

Excellent note-taking requires no small amount of self-knowledge, so don’t be upset if your notes aren’t perfect when you first start out: it takes time and practice to turn those confusing comments into a helpful summary.

Final comment for pre-meeting notes: use all the information you have before the meeting to fill in your notes. This will leave you free to pay full attention during the meeting so you can focus on copying down only the new and relevant information.

Step 2: Capture Key Details, Clarifying Questions, and Action Items

It can be overwhelming to decide what to write down while remaining focused on the speakers during your meeting. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t capture every detail. It’s impossible. You’ll spend more time scrawling furiously or typing than paying attention to what’s actually happening.

  • Get the big picture. Conceptual terms first, then expand on them underneath. Write down clarifying questions you have on topics you didn’t feel you fully grasped.

  • Capture action items. A successful meeting should end with you knowing what’s expected of you and when.

Notes can and should be flexible. Don’t get hung up on keeping your paper neat or every comment in its proper box. Remember, the only thing notes must be is useful. Even a fragmented thought can help jog your memory when reviewing it later.

Be patient and give yourself time to learn the art. You’ll find your groove with practice. Experiment. Refine. Perfect.

Step 3: Review and Fill In Your Notes After the Meeting

The final step in the note-taking process is making use of them. This is where you’ll get the chance to refine your notes so they’re useful to you and other people with whom you share them long after the meeting.

It’s always good to review your notes immediately, ideally within 15 minutes. Don’t just go back to your desk and shove your notes into a drawer where you’ll never read them.

Review is your opportunity to add clarifying details to notes that don’t quite make sense. Look to fill in definitions or add concepts while details are still fresh in your mind. Even if you don’t refer back to your notes, the simple act of reviewing them can help you better remember the key points later.

This is also a great time to compare or combine your notes with fellow attendees or organizers. See what concepts they included that you didn’t and whether that information might be useful for your own notes.

Finally, double and triple-check that all action items and next steps relevant to you are all there.

Final Notes

Remember these points:

  • Taking notes shows respect, earns trust and makes meetings more productive.

  • Notes help with information retention and idea synthesis. Unlock your full potential.

  • Build better relationships. Become someone your teammates can trust to connect them with the pulse of information. And share the load to save each other time.

  • Prepare your notes in advance by using the meeting agenda.

  • Practice capturing the most important and useful information during the meeting.

  • Review your notes when the meeting is over and fill in details where needed.

At all levels of an organization, taking notes is critical. It maximizes individual potential and unlocks team-building opportunities. A great meeting with great discussions and debates can be even more impactful if its essence is captured and shared in a good set of notes.

Mastering the art of note-taking takes time. But once you've established the practice, you'll start reaping the benefits. I hope reading this guide will empower you to use this simple act of note-taking to boost productivity and supercharge your career.

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