Monday, November 23, 2009

Taking Notes - The Right Way

I was attending the LearnTrends webinars last week when I realized (yet another time), the importance of good note-taking.
People take notes for various reasons. I usually take notes to refer to them later either to schedule further events/meetings/to-dos or to learn from and reflect on things that were discussed. Whatever your reasons may be, taking notes the right way is a skill that needs to be mastered.
After 17 years of formal education based on lectures and 10 years of corporate experience with countless meetings, I have been able to refine my note-taking skills to a point where I can claim to be a good note-taker! (Now that is why I was always asked to minute critical meetings…)

Here are my best practices on good note-taking:

Listen carefully - Well, this one is simple but probably the most difficult to implement. If you aren’t listening carefully, you can't take good notes. Practice active listening. The way to do this is to remove all distractions - phones, internet etc, and listen with the objective of translating the spoken into the written. I organize my notes by building a structure – a best practice is to follow the flow of the speaker to do so. I use bullets, sub-bullets and identify the main and the supporting ideas. Of course, being an active listener helps me stay engaged with the speaker and does well to communicate a certain degree of professionalism to the group!

Use a notebook - Again a simple practice but ignored my many. I have seen people take notes on loose sheets of paper and even post-its. Note-taking needs an organized frame of mind and a good frame of sheets too! You need to be prepared to take good notes, else it won't happen. The most important aspect of preparation is to ensure that you have a notebook that helps you organize and store your notes so that you can review them at a later point easily. I use a journal with tabbed sections because it is helpful when I attend meetings/lectures on various topics of interest. This way, I can tag my notes easily within the relevant topic. The key message here is that if you can't trace your notes for a review, then what's the point in taking them!

Use shorthand, symbols – The speaker will never speak at a speed that’s ideal for note-taking. Realize this challenge and create your own way to write quickly – use abbreviations, symbols, highlights, formatting – anything that works for you. I use simple symbols like a star to highlight important things, a question mark to check something later, and write ‘to-do’ before a list of actionable. I am neat enough but don't try to be calligraphic with my notes. In the beginning, your notes may not appear readable to others but in time, you will learn to read and understand your own notes!

Review the notes – After you take notes, it is important to review them immediately (or as quickly as possible) to ensure you have covered all points. If I didn’t quite catch all the points at the first go, I often leave blank spaces and check with other attendees (if possible) or the speaker to fill-in the key points. This ensures that my notes are complete. During the review, I date the notes and put the time I spent attending the meeting. If it is required, I capture the attendee list and other details. The point of all of this is to make the notes as robust as possible for a later use.

For me, taking notes goes far beyond capturing key points. I find note-taking almost a cathartic exercise that helps me give meaning to my thoughts and ideas and helps me learn and grow. I find it energizing to review my notes after weeks, months, or even years and find a new meaning from where I left them.

The bottom-line is that good notes can be as important as you would like them to be. If you capture great notes but never visit them again, then learning how to take notes the right way won’t help.