Earlier in my career, I led a lot of remote usability tests, which helped me build the ability to take quick, detailed notes while still engaging with my participants. In user research, everything a participant says is a potential business-shaping insight, so taking good notes is critical to getting value out of the research.
I find that note-taking is an under-appreciated skill in workplaces. But these days, when many people are working remotely for the first time, it’s more important than ever to be able to capture the information shared, debates had, and decisions made during remote meetings so they can be easily shared and those not in attendance can stay informed.
Taking better notes is a key business skill that will improve your communication with others and create a meaningful record of knowledge for your company — here are some of my best practices.
Like so many other things, it starts with your mindset.
I’m bad at taking notes → It’s my job to transmit the information in this room to others
I once sat down in a packed boardroom with executives and department leads, preparing to make some key decisions for an upcoming project, so I asked for a volunteer to take notes — I had taken them in our previous group meeting, and I consider note-taking a rotating job. As I looked around the group, all I heard back was one person say, I’m bad at taking notes.
I couldn’t believe this response. Can you imagine saying this to get out of other facets of your job? Communication is part of your job; taking notes is how you communicate beyond the confines of your meeting. But if you don’t understand the why behind note-taking, it’s easy to see the task as a chore to be avoided.
Good note-taking starts with shifting your perspective about meetings and your work in general. Take a look at the following statements — do you believe they’re true?
- Efficient communication is part of my job.
- The information shared during meetings should be accessible to people who couldn’t attend.
- The debates and decisions that occur in meetings should be recorded so our group remembers why we made key choices.
- As a member of the meeting group, it’s my responsibility to ensure that the factual contents of the meeting are recorded for the good of the entire company.
Everything you’re doing at your job is not for your benefit only. You’re not meeting just to help you get your own project done; you’re meeting to make decisions that will influence your company’s future, perhaps for years to come. The project you are building today may only take a month to complete, but months or years from now, another team might step in to build on top of it. Will they understand why you chose the solutions you chose, or will they repeat all of your mistakes?
Good note-taking (and a well-organized knowledge base — I’ll save that for another post 😆) is how companies get a return on the investment of all that meeting time. Companies who can build and maintain records of historical knowledge and decisions are able to learn from the past to make better, and faster, future decisions.
Okay, so my notes might help someone in the distant future… but that’s so far away. And what do I get out of it?
Besides forming a historical record, your notes will help these audiences, too:
- Those who didn’t attend the meeting, right away
Non-attendees will be able to read your notes and come away with the same information as those who did attend — this saves everyone time and often reduces follow-up meetings.
- Yourself or your teammates, in the near future
Work moves quickly, and sometimes — even just a couple weeks later — it can be hard to remember why you made certain decisions. You’ll be able to go back to your notes and refresh your memory about critical decisions — you may also find that the very process of note-taking helps you remember and retain more details after the meeting.
Your meetings are just the same as my user research sessions: the whole point of them is to gather information that can be shared with others and referenced again in the future. If you don’t make a usable record of what was said, you’ve failed to provide your company a return on its investment.
The first step in taking good notes is to shift your perspective to see meetings as a treasure trove of information that needs to be preserved to help you and your company succeed.
Techniques for taking great meeting notes
Now that we understand why note-taking is important, let’s talk about the how.
1. Create a shared, digital document in the most permanent, publicly accessible place possible.
Always create your notes document where the most people at your company can access it. There are a lot of note-taking programs, and it can be tempting to use the one you personally like the most, but if your goal is to communicate with others and create a record for the future, get on board with your company’s preferred system. Nothing kills the effectiveness of notes like having five different knowledge bases that don’t talk to each other.
For bonus points, create a note document before the meeting and add it to the calendar invite description so everyone in attendance can easily access it during and after the meeting.
2. Start each note document with the basics of the story.
At the top of every notes document, write down the following information:
- When/where: the date, time, and place (if important) of the meeting
- Who: full names of everyone in attendance
- What/why: the purpose of the meeting and topics to be discussed
This information is totally obvious to you so it often gets overlooked, but it’s critical to document for someone who didn’t attend.
3. Write down who said what, verbatim.
The best and easiest note-taking technique is to hear what’s said and then write it down exactly as it was said. Remember the research mindset: every word said in this room might be a potential key insight. You shouldn’t have to think too much about what you’re writing — you’re just hearing and recording.
Attach each speaker’s name to their statements. I like to use each person’s initials (assuming there are no duplicates in the room) as a quick reference — if you wrote down everyone’s full names at the top of your notes document, a future reader should be able to interpret initials easily.
This kind of note-taking is a great way to actively listen — I’m certainly guilty of spacing out in meetings and thinking about my grocery list or the sewing project I just started — so making it my job to hear and document the words spoken helps me stay in the moment and really absorb information. The person who takes the notes is often the best informed ✍️
If the stakes are high and a meeting is critically important, I also recommend recording the meeting using whatever remote meeting tool you have, and looking into auto-transcription tools.
4. Filter down to the most critical insights.
Think about the audience for your notes: non-attendees and future readers. Which would your future self rather read through: a long verbatim transcript of everything that was said in the meeting, or a one-page brief of the key talking points and takeaways?
Use your judgment to decide what is a key insight to document and what is not. You could do this after the meeting by editing down your notes, or edit yourself in real-time by writing down just the selected quotes that stand out most to you.
This part is subjective. After many years of doing this, I just have a gut sense of when something hits my ear that fascinates me because it reveals something about the speaker’s perspective. But here are some criteria that can help determine what is a key insight to be recorded:
- Strong emotion-filled or opinion-based statements: areas of concern, areas of excitement, etc.
- Controversial things: what did people disagree or debate about?
- Agreements and decisions: note what’s agreed upon and why
- Action items: who will take each one, and due-dates
- Anything that surprises you, or new information you learned: it’s likely others won’t know these things either
- Things that changed during the course of the meeting: what led to the change?
- Anything not done or delayed: topics that didn’t get covered yet or decisions yet to be made that will be returned to in the future
The best meeting notes can be read in under five minutes and bring the story of the meeting to life. Recording direct quotes from speakers and editing them down to the most important insights ensures your notes will be consumable and impactful.
5. Share those notes!
You took useful notes; now you need to make sure people can access them.
If they are not already placed in your company’s knowledge base, move them there into a well-organized section or folder where every person at your company has access. There’s nothing more frustrating than being sent a document you have to “request access” to open 😡.
Share the notes out to everyone in attendance, anyone who missed the meeting, and to other folks who might want to be in the know (don’t assume they don’t care — they probably are happy to take a peek, but they are also free to ignore your message).
You’d be amazed at how much goodwill sharing information can build. Think about times when you felt out-of-the-loop at work — it can be really frustrating and diminishing. Compare that to times when people on adjacent teams looped you in proactively — didn’t that feel awesome and helpful?
And as a manager, I can tell you right now, no manager wishes they were given less information. Sharing notes with your manager or other team leads as a one-way FYI shows you care about open communication and keeping everyone informed.
An example in action
So what does this actually look like in practice? Let’s look at a meeting you might be familiar with:
Meeting: Tuesday September 7, 2004, 12:15 p.m., North Shore High School cafeteria
Attendees: Regina George, Gretchen Wieners, Karen Smith, Cady Heron
Purpose: Figure out who the new girl isNotes:
RG: Why don’t I know you?CH: I just moved here from Africa. I used to be homeschooled.
• Has never been to a real school before
• Thinks she’s really pretty
• Has a great bracelet; her mom made it for herGW introduces Fetch: slang from England for something that's cool
• The group is unfamiliar with this phrase; seemed confusedRG, GW, and KS discussed inviting CH to join them for lunch againGW: We want to invite you to have lunch with us every day for the rest of the week.Confirm that CH will join for lunch starting tomorrow (Wednesday) through the end of the week.KS: On Wednesdays we wear pink.Action items:
• CH to join The Plastics for lunch on Wednesday, wearing pink.
Compare the notes above to this example of weaker notes from the same meeting:
• New student
• Join us for lunch for the rest of the week
• Wear pink
The above is facetious, but I’ve seen notes as slim as this from meetings I’ve attended.
When you compare the two examples, one tells you a story: the who, what, when, where, and why. As an outside reader, the topics of conversation, key insights, and decisions made are clear to me.
The other is pretty much just the what — no people, dates, or goals are identified. But beyond that, the what is lacking the personal details that bring the whole story to life. This is why direct quotes can be so helpful in note-taking: quotes give readers the ability to imagine tone of voice and glean sentiment much easier than just a dry bullet point list of topics.
I hope the above tips give you a new appreciation for note-taking, as well as techniques you can apply to your next meeting, remote or in-person.
Do you have great note-taking tips and techniques? Share them in the comments below!