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How to Take Notes During Meetings

How to Take Notes During Meetings

Richard Branson once said, “If you don’t write your ideas down, they could leave your head before you even leave the room”.  Notes serve an important purpose – they represent a filter between the large quantities of information entering our brains and what we’ll later use to review, learn, and ultimately take action. However, an issue exists with excessive note-taking. 

If you spend all your time writing ideas down, you run a risk of missing the next idea. Notes are helpful in moderation. Any more (or any less) will yield negative returns for our productivity. 

Brains aren’t wired to flawlessly remember every little item we need to do. It’s crucial we have a strong organizational system in place. In doing so, we can effectively capture and recall important tasks for each week, month, and quarter. Meetings are held for a specific purpose – to better understand the material. If your team forgets the subject matter a week later, the meeting was ineffective. Good notes prevent that.

Good notes… Isn’t that subjective? No – we will explain what constitutes effective note-taking (and what doesn’t) in the paragraphs below.

First and foremost, recognize that notes are not intended to be freeform commentary on your meeting. They need organization – otherwise they’re incomprehensible to others (and often even to oneself).  If you want to take great notes, your group conversation needs to follow a specific template. 

As the leader of a meeting, it’s important to remember that none of your colleagues live inside your head. Your team can’t guess at how you’d like your meetings to play out. They need order and structure. Find the agenda ahead of time and create a note-taking wireframe/outline before the meeting begins.

If you don’t have access to the agenda ahead of time (which is a problem that needs to be handled – just not in this article), this is a reliable way to organize your notes into three sections:

First Stage: What? 

In this section, you need to tackle issues like defining the problem. Ask what happened. Discover and document the facts. Write down the most prevalent opinions.

Second Stage: So What?

Move on to document why this is important. What do various parties stand to gain? How will this have a tangible impact? 

Third Stage: Now What?

The most vital section of any note-taking: what are we going to do about the issue at hand? What actions are most logical? What steps need to be taken? What needs to be removed so we can act? If your notes don’t offer functional “next steps”, don’t end the meeting. Ask and clarify before leaving the room.

The “What // So What // Now What” method takes an incomprehensible amount of information and organizes it neatly into a coherent, sensible, action-inducing framework. Instead of scribbling notes aimlessly then struggling to keep up with the next sentence as your handwriting progressively worsens, simply adopt a wireframe. It’s easier to review the information, which means it’s easier to retain the information. Best of all, it’s easier to reduce this information to an actionable item.

This framework serves as a simple example that can offer a “one-size-fits-all” approach to any type of general meeting. If you consider that meetings can include presentations, status updates, brainstorming sessions, and countless other varieties, your team might consider a more nuanced, detailed framework for your managed discussion.

Meeting+ offers numerous templates modeled after your industry’s best practices. Instead of dedicating your team’s time to A/B testing the most useful organizational processes, we’ve handled the legwork for you. The templates we’ve created act as liberating structures to improve productivity, boost creativity, and enhance collaboration.

People don’t think of organization or structure as liberating, but anything that frees one from longer meetings or additional follow-up meetings certainly fits that definition. These templates allow your team access to the collective wisdom of America’s most successful companies. On top of that, Meeting+ even takes notes for you. 

Imagine a meeting without organization. The meeting director decides he wants to ask a question to reach a group consensus. He opens up a discussion but multi-sided debates break out and no resolution is ever made. How are you, the scribe, supposed to take effective and actionable notes on something like this? 

It’s an unrealistic expectation. Organization prompts understanding. Understanding prompts action. When presented with ineffective note-taking and awful meetings, don’t blame the participants. As they say internally at Amazon, “Attack the process, not the person”.

All note-taking should mimic the following steps. An outline acts as a toolkit to create robust understanding of a multi-dimensional problem. Once you have clearly defined the problem, only then can you seek a solution. If you dedicate time to subject matter clarity, you’ll guarantee more quality results. 

Pretend you’re taking notes that you will later explain to your children. Jot down phrases in the simplest way possible. Be real with yourself – you won’t reference 3 pages of scribbles in the future. However, you actually might reference something that’s neatly organized, succinct, and simple. 

If everyone on your team is independently taking notes, you’re doing it wrong. Delegate a specific individual to take these notes. If you don’t have the resources to allow for that, develop a wireframe that asks questions in a stupidly simple way. Eloquent and verbose speech, while audibly-aesthetically pleasing, doesn’t often lead to straightforward practical solutions that can be acted upon in the next 24-48 hours. 

To some, note-taking is painful. They hate writing things down. They’d rather contribute conversation and ideas. For others, they enjoy it and take pleasure from note-taking – they write as if they’re cramming for an exam that’ll decide whether they graduate or not. In both situations, neither of these people should be taking notes as neither knows how to do so productively. 

Notes can act as a distraction (or pseudo-work). A large majority of people find themselves feeling uneasy when they sit for long periods of time without talking, writing, typing, or acting in some physical way. Most tend to find something else to do – this helps them feel busy. Note-taking fits this bill perfectly. 

With Morgan, your team can search through meeting minutes on Slack to locate previous conversations. If they know they can reference a centrally located document later, it offers the freedom to devote their attention to whatever subject matter is at hand. If you starve your team of distractions, they are forced to focus on the group conversation. After all, there are legitimate financial costs associated with allowing our attention to be commandeered by unproductive time-wasters. 

In today’s knowledge-centered workplace, our most important tool is an ability to stay focused on a thought-provoking subject for specific periods of time. A lot of individuals seem terrible at optimizing this resource, prioritizing busy-work like the quantity of note-taking rather than the quality of our note-taking. We need to cut anything that takes one away from a subject. Instead, we need to value tools, frameworks, and templates that push our teams deeper into issues. 

As Pulitzer Prize winner, Mary Oliver says – “Attention is the beginning of devotion”. If someone is too busy writing notes to listen, how can they value the subjects that go unnoticed?

Brian Mohr