How I take notes in meetings

I’ve always been a fairly diligent note taker in meetings. Taking notes helps me track the conversation and any resulting action items, retain information, and act as a journal for my day—a way to easily look back at past meetings and discussions in order to jog my memory or pull out a specific piece of context. I’ve gone through various note taking systems over the years. In the past, I used Evernote to take notes, then I switched to handwritten notes in a notebook, then to Google Docs. Now I use Witful for my meeting notes.

I’ve also gone through various techniques for how I write notes themselves. It turns out there are quite a few methods of note taking. I’ve tried my own variation of the sentence method, where you’re basically capturing the discussion in transcript format. I would prefix each block of conversation with the name or initials of the person saying it. My meeting notes would end up looking something like this:

MT:
Are we optimizing for velocity or efficiency?
Empowered teams with autonomy and flexibility but fragmentation and inefficiencies
Probably need some balance, e.g. maybe shared cluster teams deploy stuff to

KM:
We’ve had an issue with governance—there isn’t any
Major deficiency on security side
Unclear roles/responsibilities has made it difficult to standardize

SW:
Trying to iron out roles and responsibilities but it’s been floundering

As you can see, it’s more capturing the salient points in an abridged format rather than complete sentences as they were said in the meeting. I’ve found that writing down (or even typing) full sentences while a meeting is happening is nearly impossible, and not that useful, especially if it’s a discussion that I am needing to be engaged in. I usually just need enough context to jog my memory, not recall what was said verbatim.

I’ve also tried the outline method of taking notes. With this, the discussion looks more like a book outline than a transcript. This style has always felt more natural to me and it’s what I tend to gravitate towards out of habit. I make heavy use of nested bullet lists. These notes typically look like the following:

Data privacy project

  • Making presentation to roadmap committee for large/strategic roadmap items
    • August 16
    • This will require product changes so product team is involved
    • Need us to help make the business case
  • Robert said this should probably be owned by the platform team
    • Client side component and server side component
    • Chris hopes it can be abstracted enough to be owned by InfoSec team
    • Talked through incremental approach—Chris is aligned

User identity

  • Making decision on replacing identity system
    • Looking at Okta and Azure AD
    • Some contingents seem to prefer Microsoft
    • Chris has concerns about Azure AD for end user auth
  • Governance process
    • Don’t want this to constrain the business
    • Talked through approaches

I find nested lists flexible and easy to quickly jot down notes and add further context to a discussion point, but it’s easy for the nesting to get out of hand. I try to keep things grouped by the “big ideas.” Another challenge with this technique is that meetings tend to wander. Rarely do discussions move linearly through a meeting agenda. Rather, they hit an agenda item, then circle back to a previous item, then jump forward to another agenda item, and so forth. Similarly, the “agenda” is not always well defined—topics get added, removed, changed. This means it’s not always easy to know what the “big ideas” are or where a particular part of the conversation falls into the outline. Instead, you have to determine this on the fly which can take some cognitive load. Lastly, I’ve found it can be really valuable to know who is saying what for key discussion points in a meeting. For example, taking this line from the excerpt above:

  • Need us to help make the business case

In this case, it would be critical to know who is making this ask as well as precisely how the ask was made.

For these reasons, I’ve come to settle on a hybrid approach to my note taking which combines elements of the transcript-style notes with the outline-style. I tend to group the big ideas into outline format as I’m able to in addition to capturing abridged, transcript-style notes for key discussion points where knowing who is saying what matters or if the specific words used are important (they often are but that importance can get lost with summarized meeting notes). With this approach, the above example looks more like this:

Data privacy project

  • LJ: making presentation to roadmap committee for large/strategic roadmap items
    • August 16
    • This will require product changes so product team is involved
    • LJ: I need you to help make the business case for us
  • RK: this should probably be owned by the platform team
    • Client side component and server side component
    • Chris hopes it can be abstracted enough to be owned by InfoSec team
    • Talked through incremental approach—Chris is aligned

User identity

  • Making decision on replacing identity system
    • Looking at Okta and Azure AD
    • Some contingents seem to prefer Microsoft
    • CL: I don’t think Azure AD is the right choice for end user auth
  • Governance process
    • LJ: I don’t want this to constrain the business
    • Talked through approaches

I’ve found this method strikes a comfortable balance between flexibility (in terms of being able to adapt the structure of my notes based on the natural flow of a meeting), accuracy (in terms of capturing important context and details), and efficiency (in terms of my ability to capture notes while remaining engaged in the conversation).

Organizing Notes

One part I haven’t touched on is how I organize my notes. When I was a manager and I used to take handwritten notes, I would have a dedicated section in my notebook—or even separate notebooks—for each of my direct reports. This gave me a long-running contextual thread for each of my biweekly one-on-ones. It made it easy to quickly reference what we had previously discussed, the problem space the team member was currently working in, concerns they had surfaced or challenges they were facing, or just general noteworthy “life” things (after all, good one-on-ones are more than just status checks).

I soon realized this technique of associating notes with people was much more broadly useful. There is a lot of value in indexing meeting notes by the people in those meetings, so I began to include the attendees of a meeting in my notes such that I could more easily maintain and navigate those contextual threads. This proved to be a bit challenging for a couple of reasons, however.

First, I would find myself frantically trying to write down the names of all the attendees at the start of every meeting. This was especially difficult when meetings would include people I had not met before (which is more frequent in consulting than it was when I worked at a software company). I’d be trying to jot down people’s names and some additional information about them during rounds of introductions. I’d often end up with incorrect names, misspelled names, partial names, or simply missing names altogether.

Second, a lot of note taking apps aren’t really all that conducive to this approach. I’d frequently use tags that were mapped to attendees to create this organizational structure, but tags are usually not designed for this type of use case and instead are intended for large topics or themes, such as in Evernote. What I mean by this is in most productivity apps that support them, tags are intended for organizing content into categories. For example, you might have a dozen or so tags for different projects you are involved in. Having hundreds of tags—one for every person—often caused UX or usability problems. Another issue with tags is that it requires a lot of care and maintenance to make sure the correct tags get applied to every note. Any mistake causes the system to fall apart.

This is why we designed Witful to center more around your calendar and the people in your meetings. It’s also why we dropped tags as a feature very early on in the product. We found that by automatically organizing notes by people and time, tagging became a lot less useful.

Preparing Before and Tracking Action Items During a Meeting

In the past, I would often not actually look back at previous notes I had taken. Not because those notes weren’t useful, but because it was usually difficult to find the relevant notes for an upcoming meeting. Instead, I would just show up to a meeting without really doing any prep. From experience, I suspect this is the case for most people. Meetings frequently start with several minutes of getting everyone back up to speed because no one really has the context fresh in their mind. Previous discussions and decisions often get lost.

The way I would capture an action item during a meeting would be to underline (if handwritten) or bold (if typed) the part in the note and commit it to memory. Important things would always get remembered by the very nature of being important, but the slightly-less-important-but-still-valuable items would often slip my mind. This was the difference between being good and great at my job. It’s the stuff that, when missed, no one really notices, but when you’re on top of it, people think you’re superhuman.

However, with this new organizational approach and the fact that Witful automatically organizes my notes by people and meeting series, I now usually prepare for a meeting by quickly reviewing previous relevant notes. I use these notes to build out an agenda for upcoming meetings or to remind myself of key discussion points by adding them to the note for the upcoming meeting. During a meeting, it’s easy to quickly pull out important pieces of context or to review how a decision was arrived at previously. In Witful, I capture an action item by simply adding “!!” to the end of a line which lets me know, with confidence, it won’t slip through the cracks.

An App That Is Purpose-Built for Meetings

I’ve never really found a notes app that seemed to be built for the purpose of meetings. Google Docs isn’t even a notes app, and is frankly just a terrible experience when it comes to note taking (and Google Drive has surprisingly awful search coming from a company built on search). Evernote, along with many other note-taking apps I’ve tried, feels too generic and bloated, nor does it feel conducive to a more opinionated workflow around meetings. It’s part of the reason why we built Witful and why it’s not just another notes app. We want to build a better workflow around meeting notes so that people whose work revolves around their calendar can feel superhuman at their job.