I’ve been taking notes in meetings for more than 20 years. In that period, I’ve held roles in sales, business development, account management, product management and various forms of management and leadership – all with lots of meetings. Creating useful notes has always been essential to my work. Here are six meeting note techniques I’ve learned over the years that have helped make my notes more valuable. I’ve included screenshots and examples from my actual notes so you can see what each looks like in practice.
1. Capture what’s essential
Your notes shouldn’t distract you from the purpose of the meeting. Connecting with people, engaging in conversation, generating new ideas, and arriving at decisions should always be the focus of your attention, instead of whether or not every last detail has been captured perfectly. I’ve learned that there’s a balance between capturing too little information in order to remain fully engaged, and capturing too much in order to maximize informational value at the expense of being present to the people and topics in the meeting.
There have been times in the past where I’ve jotted down quick burst phrases like this…
Eventually I have learned that it’s often too difficult to make sense of cryptic minimalist notes like that and have favored just slightly more information, for example…
Whether you’re typing your notes or writing them by hand will largely determine how much you can capture. Most of us can type 2 – 3 times faster than we can write with pen and paper. Regardless of whether you take analog or digital notes, there is a way to strike a good balance between minimalism for the sake of presence, and detail for the sake of usefulness.
My strategy for capturing the essential information in my notes in order to remain present and engaged involves focusing on the things people care about. I work to notice energy changes around certain topics or new inflections on certain phrases indicating that this is a thing that matters more. These are the types of things I’ll jot down. Another way to think of it is practicincing a form of empathy – listen well, notice what matters to someone and make a note of it. In aggregate, this will result in capturing the things that are more important and skipping things that are less important.
2. Keep structure and formatting lightweight
Much has been made of correctly organizing notes by topics, sub topics and themes. Years ago I spent a lot of energy trying to structure my meeting notes like a well organized book outline. I know people today who can do this well in real-time, but it has never worked for me. Conversations, even ones with well defined agendas, naturally wander, jump topics, return to topics from several minutes ago, then immediately introduce new threads without warning. Eventually I realized it was just too much work for my brain to try to sort and categorize this information in real time. Real life conversations are just a bit too chaotic.
For this reason, I capture notes chronologically. I don’t worry about headers or bullets or sub topics. I jot down a sentence or two at most (sometimes, yes, they are sentence fragments) then add a paragraph break, then jot down the next thing. Flattening the structure of the conversation this way allows me to track what’s being said and who cares about what, without getting distracted by whether or not I’ve followed a structure correctly.
You may be fanatical about the format of your notes, or you may find, like I do, that the bare minimum amount of structure is best. Regardless of whether it’s minimal or maximal, it’s essential that your structure and formatting feel lightweight when you’re in the meeting. It should be nearly effortless. If it isn’t, it’s getting too much of your attention – energy and creativity that is better spent on the people and the ideas in the room.
3. Track who said what
In a meeting with several people, it’s easy to capture an important statement like:
This project needs to be completed by June 1.
Over time I’ve learned, in practice, that who made the statement is more important than the statement itself. This little piece of context can really affect how you think about information when you’re reviewing it a month from now. The Vice President of Marketing making a statement has a different relevance than the same statement made by a customer support representative. They have different motivations, access to different information, different types of authority, different accountability, and a dozen other nuanced considerations that could impact how you think about or act on the statement when you review your notes later.
I’ve found that a super simple method for capturing who said what can make my notes tremendously more valuable. The convention that works for me because it’s fast, is beginning the line with the person’s initials. For example:
MS: This project needs to be completed by June 1.
This obviously entails knowing the person’s initials, but in most cases, you probably already know this. And if you don’t, your Google Calendar can help. And if those two things fail, jotting down the person’s first name is often good enough. Is it a perfect system? No. Is it super simple? Yes. Has it been good enough for me for more than a decade? Most definitely.
4. Organization above all else
This is different from the organization within, or rather the formatting of, your notes. Instead, this is the system for how your notes are organized or saved, and how easy or not it is for you to find what you need later. How you save or catalog your meeting notes is, I submit, far more important than what you capture within your notes. I could be the best note taker in the world, but if I’m not able to quickly find the note I need later that note has almost no value at all.
I will admit, I learned this the hard way. I spent many years diligently capturing my meeting notes only to eventually come to the honest realization that I almost never returned to reference them. It wasn’t that my notes lacked substance. The problem was that my system for storing my notes made it virtually impossible to find what I needed later, and so eventually I stopped trying.
It’s sort of like gathering tons of useful hand tools that I throw into a shed behind the house. At first, it’s fine. I can walk into the shed and pick up a hammer from a handful of other tools on the floor. But over time, once the shed has hundreds or thousands of tools in it, all piled on top of each other, those tools are no longer useful. At that point, they’re just taking up space.
When it comes to how notes are organized, just like the structure and formatting of the content, lightweight and simple is better. It’s easy to concoct a complex system of folders, tags and note titles that you swear to yourself you’ll follow religiously. No offense, but, you won’t. I’ve been there. I gave up on that New Year’s resolution long, long ago. Here’s what works for me instead: Organize notes by when they happened and who you were with. I wrote a separate post with a little more detail on this system.
Here’s the basic idea. First, make it a point to record the people in your meeting (First/Last name, email address) in your notes. This will result in people acting like your tags, or the folders for how your notes are stored. You’ll be able to search for a name like ‘Alex Campbell’ and get a manageable set of results. Next, give your note a manual time stamp that matches the event on your calendar so you have a clear connection between the note and the event on your calendar. And that’s it. This simple organization provides two clear, distinct ways to find what you’re looking for: by person, and by calendar meeting time. Chances are good you’ll be able to quickly remember one or both of those two things when you’re trying to summon that magical insight you captured a couple weeks ago. This lightweight system can make sure you get there quickly.
I use Witful to automatically connect my notes to both my calendar events, and the people in the meeting…
5. Highlight your key take-aways
The most productive meetings have things that need to happen after the meeting: a decision you or someone else needs to act on, someone to follow up with, or some tasks that need to get done. Having a simple system for highlighting these things so they stand out in your notes can save a ton of time. Plus it’s tremendously helpful when someone in the room can wrap up the meeting with something like “Now, for next steps, I’m going to chat with Alex about the priorities we decided on and talk to Maya about our open questions on campaign budget.”
Occasionally, my notes can run pretty lengthy, and so it’s helpful to have a simple pattern that allows me to scan a few pages and find these follow-up items. Because I capture notes chronologically, I jot these action items down in-line with the rest of my notes so I have the context around when I capture a task or an important decision. Witful, the app I use for my notes, once again makes this really easy – using a keyboard shortcut gives my tasks a little ‘to-do’ or ‘topic’ tag inline with my notes. Alternatively, it can work well to make these items bold so that they stand out from the rest of the text. If my notes are handwritten, I’ll give them an asterisk beside the line so I can quickly skim the page and find the key takeaways.
6. Metadata is a must
This may seem obvious, but it’s essential. Capturing who was in the meeting, what the title of the meeting was, and when it happened are all critical for reference later. This is, effectively, all of the information that your calendar invite gives me. I just make sure it ends up in my notes so that a month from now I can remember who was in the meeting, and why the meeting was organized to begin with. Not to mention, this works hand-in-hand with number four, above, keeping your notes organized, and keeping your organization system featherweight.
It’s a little thing, and it’s easy to do, but it makes a big difference.
Witful automatically attaches this metadata to my notes…
7. (Bonus, free of charge) Don’t share your notes
I sure many will passionately disagree with this, but I stand by it. We’ve all, at some point, received someone else’s notes after a meeting has wrapped up. To be sure, I sympathize with the gesture. I’ve done it myself. It’s a sincere effort to try to help make sure we’re all on the same page about what was discussed and decided during a meeting. But let’s think about it for a moment. In those moments when you’ve received someone else’s notes, how many times have you thoroughly read them and thought “Great, this is so helpful!” Now compare that with all of the other times you’ve seen the email, glanced at the notes then promptly archived the email.
Notes are typically too personal and too rough to be useful to anyone other than the note taker. Unless I heavily edit and curate the contents of my notes, they just won’t be that useful to you, even if they’re tremendously valuable to me.
Instead, I’d like to suggest that we all resist the urge to take the shortcut and send our unedited notes to the people we meet with, and instead send a very brief summary. Even better, translate that summary into a few narrative sentences. If it sounds like something you’d say in person to someone, there will be a lot less guesswork and translation on the part of your recipients. Send only the important, most salient items and save the rest for your own reference.
Did you find any of this helpful? Do you disagree? I’d love to know (mike at witful dot com) – let’s chat more about it.