Taking good meeting notes is something we all know is valuable, and yet we struggle to do it well.
It’s a problem a lot of us have in one form or another. Maybe you write down so much you can never organize it or pull out the key information later, or maybe you have trouble paying attention and end up with a page that’s nothing but doodles. Maybe your have a stack of notepads and random scraps of paper in heaping mounds on your desk, or maybe your meetings are just so boring that you’re stumped as to what you’re even supposed to be writing down.
No matter what your meeting note-taking problem, here is how to do meeting notes right.
The essentials of good note-taking
To get better at taking notes in meetings, it helps first to get back to basics.
Why take notes in meetings at all?
It may sound overly simple, but remembering *why* you bring a notebook to a meeting can help you hone your note-taking strategy. So why do you take notes in meetings? Here are a few thoughts:
- to record key details you need to know (dates, names, deadlines, resources, etc)
- to organize your thoughts on a big idea after getting more information
- to formulate good questions about things you didn’t understand from the meeting
The reasons for taking notes are fairly simple when it comes down to it, and your note-taking strategy should be the same way.
Think about the notes you’ve revisited recently, or over the course of your career. What made those notes valuable? Why did you decide to write down what you did? How did you know this information would be important to have written down? How did you find that information later?
You don’t need to write everything down to be good at taking meeting notes; you just need to teach yourself to write the right things down.
How to take lightweight, but valuable, meeting notes
You almost never need to write *everything* down that’s said in a meeting; in fact, you probably shouldn’t. Writing too much during a meeting can keep you from being totally engaged with the conversation happening right in front of you, and it can cause you to lose the really key information in a sea of dense notes you’ll never read over again.
Here are some tips for making your notes super lightweight and efficient:
- Try writing down just one point per dialogue. If one person is speaking, then, you only get to write one sentence to summarize what they said. This forces you to process the information they shared (as opposed to just robotically writing it down) and simplify it into a format that is meaningful to you.
- Turn each point into one word. You can streamline your notes even more if you try to distill each person’s point into just one word. Often, a person is really only trying to express one main point — even if they use a lot of words to get there — and so, again, this helps you clue into the key information only.
- Only write down your questions. This helps you listen critically to the conversation (if you’re looking for things to ask about, you’ll be more likely to be listening closely), as well as keep your notes super valuable. When you have a question, write it down. And when you get the answer, write that down. That way, you have a record of everything you thought was important enough to ask about.
- Wait until the end of the meeting to take notes. Ask yourself a short list of questions to distill what you heard into useful notes. What did you learn? What do you need to take action on? If you had to get someone else up to speed on this meeting, what would you tell them? This will help you write down only what was important, since that’s what you’ll remember after the meeting.
These strategies work best for meetings where you’re talking through big ideas, but not hashing out a ton of technical or logistical details. If you’re in a meeting where lots of key information is being shared (dates, deadlines, etc), then you can try a note-taking strategy to help bring your meeting notes to the next level.
Top note-taking strategies for good meeting notes
Some meetings require more writing than others. While it’s good to try to condense the amount of notes you take in an average meeting, sometimes you’re working through lots of details that you’ll want to be able to reference later.
Here are two of the best note-taking formats to help you create organized, streamlined notes:
- List. If you’re processing a lot of critical information, writing the key details in a logical order is one of the best ways to make sure nothing slips through the cracks. Again, just remember not to write down too much. Instead, focus on things like action items, to-do’s, resources, key decisions made, and any issues you need to follow up on. A short, simple list can help you put your most important details in one easy-to-reference place.
- Mind map. This is great for brainstorming meetings where you’re hearing a lot of ideas on different topics, and it’s also great if you’re a more visual person. Put the topic of the meeting at the center of the page, and then draw branches off that center topic as new sub-topics come up. Around those branches, write down your key information (same stuff you’d write down in a list) so that each detail is clumped around the appropriate sub-topic. This visual format can make details easy to find and grasp at a glance later on.
More tips for keeping awesomely useful, organized notes:
- Put the date and meeting topic at the top of each page.
- Try your best to keep your notes in one consistent place. Whether it’s one notebook that you carry from meeting to meeting, or separate notepads for separate projects, the more simplified your system, the more likely you are to actually revisit and get value from the notes you take.
- Always be prepared to take notes. Whenever you’re meeting with someone, even if it’s just for a coffee meeting, bring something along to take notes with. The more consistent you are in developing this habit, the better you’ll get at note-taking and the more likely you are to be ready to record a great idea when you hear one.
- If your notes always end up sloppy, type them up afterwards. I hate it when I have tons of cross-outs and arrows pointing all over my notes from a meeting, and wanting to avoid that can sometimes deter me from writing things down at all. If you get this way too, then you should plan to type up or re-write your meetings notes after each meeting, so that way you are free to take notes as much as needed (however sloppy) since you know they’ll get fixed up and pretty later. Plus, it’s a great way to cement the information by revisiting it after the meeting.
What to do if you have trouble focusing during meetings
A lot of people struggle with taking notes during meetings because what they are *really* struggling with is actually staying focused during the meeting. Sometimes people write down everything that’s said just to help themselves pay attention, even when the things people are saying aren’t that important. Other times, people take disorganized or too-short notes because they’re missing key details that are said, because they’re not paying attention.
Whether you have ADHD or you just go to a lot of boring meetings, there are things you can do to keep yourself checked in and getting value out of your meeting time, even when you have trouble focusing.
- Try a different note-taking strategy. If you usually make bullet point lists, try doing a mind map. Sometimes shaking up the format is enough to keep you engaged with your own work while you listen to what’s going on. It gives you a new way to think about and process what you’re hearing and writing down, which helps you stay focused.
- Focus on being present for whoever is speaking. If you’re having trouble focusing on the topic at hand, try focusing on the people instead. Set a goal to give every single speaker your undivided attention. Try to ingrain everything they are saying into your mind. If you notice your mind wandering, gently guide yourself back into the conversation.
- Check in with your physical cues. If you can click in with some personal rhythms, like your breathing, then you can often click back into your present environment. Try breathing deeply as you notice your mind beginning to wander. Look intently at the person speaking and try to understand exactly what they’re saying. Sit up straight in your chair and keep your hands still. The more you control your physical chatter, the better you’ll control your mental chatter.
- Bring a personal agenda. If the topic of the meeting is truly boring and you know you won’t be able to focus, bring a personal agenda to the meeting to give yourself something to focus on. Your agenda can be related to the meeting (ie. listen up for information that can help you solve a different problem) or unrelated to the meeting (ie. outlining an outside project you want to brainstorm). As long as you are generally listening to the meeting, you can usually get away with making this time valuable for yourself in another way as long as you’re not obviously checked out or being rude.
The key here is to remember: you want to make this time valuable for yourself. Otherwise, what is the point in being there? If you are bothering to have your body sitting in this conference room, then you need to find a way to make that time worthwhile.
Whether that’s settling down to focus and learn about the topic at hand, or making the time your own by plotting out a different idea, make sure your time spent in meetings is valuable. Don’t waste your own time by being unfocused.
And if your time in meetings isn’t valuable, there’s one more thing you can do…
Being a meeting notes ninja: how to escape the problem altogether
Sometimes the best way to take notes in a meeting is to not take any notes at all.
If you’re really bored in your meetings or having trouble finding any critical information worth writing down, it could be that you don’t really need to be there at all.
There are a couple of ways to handle this:
- When you get a meeting invite, ask if you really need to be there. Sometimes, it’s obvious why you’re in a meeting. (Those are probably the ones where note-taking is relatively easy, actually.) Sometimes, it’s less obvious. If you’re not sure you need to be there, ask the meeting organizer. You don’t have to be rude in order to get out of a meeting. Just say, “Hey! Am I really needed in this meeting? If not, I would love to just catch up with your afterward or read through your notes.”
- Ask someone else to take notes for you in the meeting. While a meeting may be boring to you, it might be an amazing opportunity for someone else. If you can send a representative from your team on your behalf to a meeting, as long as it’s okay with the meeting organizer (make sure they’re not expecting you to bring something your proxy won’t be able to provide), then you can spend your valuable time elsewhere and let someone else distill their own notes into information you need to know later on.
A lot of people agree that meetings suck, but your meeting notes don’t have to. When you focus on getting the most value from your time and effort, you can hone a strategy that works for you — so you have a system of information that helps you be more amazing at your job.
What are your best strategies for taking good notes in meetings? We’d love to hear in the comments!