How to Take Notes

A friend of mine approached me the other day about note-taking. He is a new assistant and has never had to take notes for others before. Every person can take notes for themselves (ie: high school, college) but rarely does anyone else usually have to read or understand our scribbles. In his new position, he was asked to take notes in meetings and then send out the notes to everyone in the meeting to review and follow through. The first time he did this, he sent the notes to his boss to review before sending it out and his boss had so trouble understanding them. So he suggested that he get some help with note-taking... so we met.

I don't profess to be a very skilled "scribe" (so I suggested he meet with some other people to get their thoughts), but from all the meetings I have had the privilege to sit in, there are some tips I have found to be helpful.

  • Notes are only as good as their follow through. We often take notes and never look at them again. The point of notes is not just to record what happened but also to remind us of what needs to happen out of the meeting. I try my best to set aside 15-30 minutes after a meeting to review, edit, and send out the notes as a reminder of what we said and planned to do next.
  • It is good to have a title to the meeting, date, time, and even sometimes location to jog the memory. Also, I like to include who was in the room. This is a good way to hold the people accountable (in case of "I never heard that" syndrome) or to remind yourself who needs to be caught up to speed because they missed the meeting.
  • Depending on the type of meeting, it can be good to denote who said what in your notes. This can help to see who is talking the most, what they are saying, and even why they are saying it. It can be a great way of understanding their perspective, attitude, and involvement in the meeting.
  • MOST IMPORTANT: If a meeting is about more than just what's said but also what's next, then it is vital to have a "follow up" or "next steps" section. You can put this at the bottom (to encourage everyone to read all the notes) or at the top (as the info to make sure to read, if your attendees tend to scan). This is the most important section because it tells everyone what we need to accomplish out of this meeting and before the next one.
  • ALSO IMPORTANT: Within the next steps section, you will want to make sure to assign responsibility of any next step task. It is great to know what we need to do before the next meeting or event, but it won't ever get done unless someone is assigned to do it. As the note taker, you are also deemed the "follow-up-er". You need to make sure that those assigned know they are responsible for that task (especially those who weren't in the meeting to hear it) and remind them as it gets close. This is a great way to cover your team and help each other to move the ball forward.
  • Finally, if there is a follow up (or regular) meeting, I will usually send these notes out TWICE. Once, the day after the meeting (give yourself time to clean up the notes and pretty up the formatting- bold font, italics, underline, and bullet points are your friends) AND the day before the next meeting as a reminder of what we talked about last time and what we said we planned to accomplish before our next get together.

Your turn: What tips do you have for good note taking? Any specific formats/applications you prefer (word doc, evernote, etc) and why?