How to take better meeting notes
March 31, 2021
As anyone who’s ever left their shopping list at home will testify, the bigger the distance between being told something and having to recall it, the less likely we are to get it right. This is due to something scientists call ‘the forgetting curve.’
According to science, we tend to forget an average of 50% of the information we’re presented with within one hour. This rises to 70% after a full day, and within a week, 90% has vanished. That means that after a week, you’ll have forgotten almost everything that was said in a meeting. Oops.
Doing some memory-boosting training could help, but there is an easier (and quicker) solution: Take meeting notes.
The more you note down, the less you’ll need to remember and the less you’ll forget. But here’s the thing: Note-taking is a skill, and there’s a knack to listening and writing things down in a way that’ll actually make sense to you later on.
In this article, we will go through the pros and cons of meeting notes and then run through some ways to do them better, including using note-taking templates.
Meeting notes vs. meeting minutes
Meeting minutes are formal notes that are usually typed up post-meeting and shared with everyone on the team. They typically include the following:
- A list of everyone present
- A list of absentees
- The time the meeting began and adjourned
- The key points discussed, accompanied by the name of the person who raised each item
- A list of actions to be taken post-meeting
Notes, on the other hand, are all yours. You don’t need to include everything — just the bits that are useful to you, in a way that is easy for you to understand. You can add extrapolations, doodles, dates that matter to you — in short, they’re yours.
While they are for you and you alone, you still need to keep them structured. If you don’t, you’ll come out of the meeting with a load of scribbles you can’t make sense of. You also need to strike a balance between taking down enough detail without writing pages upon pages of information. No one wants to go through pages of scribbles post-meeting, not even you.
How to take amazing meeting notes
Not all notes are created equal. Write down too much, and you’ll have loads of useless information to sift through later. Don’t take down enough, and you’ll be back where you started. Here’s how to make notes that really pull their weight.
Use pen and paper
Studies suggest we’re more likely to write verbatim when we use a laptop to take notes, whereas we tend to take down key points when writing with pen and paper. Your laptop could result in more clutter to sift through post-meeting, so leave it at your desk and take things down the old-fashioned way instead. Plus, can you honestly say you can resist checking your email during the dull bits of a meeting? Laptops = distraction.
Write in shorthand
Note-taking is the only time when it’s acceptable to fill your work with abbreviations, acronyms, and text speak. If it speeds up your writing and you’ll be able to understand it post-meeting, then do it. You can also add things like stars, bullet points, and exclamation points to indicate things that are important, urgent, or otherwise key.
Record your meeting
There are pros and cons to recording your meeting. The pros? You can listen to the entire meeting back from start to finish without writing — meaning you’ll not miss a thing. You can also listen to it when you’re doing other things, like walking to work or making dinner. The cons? It’ll take a while to find the important bits, and you’ll still end up taking notes (probably). Ideally, recording the meeting should be used in conjunction with notes.
Structure your notes
The nice thing about meeting notes (as opposed to meeting minutes) is that they’re for your eyes only. But while you should make them your own, you should still do your best to keep them structured.
When taking notes, focus on taking down only the most important bits. Try splitting your document into these sections pre-meeting to help keep your writing organized while jotting things down.
- Key discussion points: Summarize each agenda item in two or three sentences once the speaker has finished that section.
- Actions: Write down action items for you and those you’ll be working with. This includes a summary of what’s expected and other important information — like delivery dates, budgets, and contact details.
- Thoughts and ideas: If you have any ideas throughout the meeting, note them down — ideally next to the discussion point that inspired you. You may also want to add your own personal action items alongside these ideas.
- Extra information: You might also want to note down things like the date of the meeting, the agenda, attendees, and a list of those absent — plus questions and answers from your colleagues.
Share your notes the right way
While your meeting notes are just for you, you may be called on to share your learnings with the wider team. For example, if a meeting contains information related to a project, you’ll need to make sure everyone who couldn’t attend knows what to do next.
You have a few options here. Either you can share an audio recording — but it’s time-consuming for everyone on the team to listen to it. Or, you could type up your notes in a doc and share it — but the downside with that is docs get forgotten, missed, and left to collect dust in drawers (or inboxes). The third option? Upload your notes to a wiki.
Wikis are a great way to repurpose your notes in a way that’s practical and useful. Some project management tools — like our own Backlog — have wiki features that let you add documentation then sort it into categories. Not only is this a more collaborative way of working (others with access to the wiki can add their own thoughts and facts to your points), but it also tides up your data, so people can hone in on the bits that are relevant to them and leave the rest.
Good meeting notes aren’t about taking down every single detail. It’s about being able to pick out the important bits from a sea of information and summarize it in two or three sentences — something that might feel tricky at first, but will get easier with practice.
Even if it’s just you who’ll be looking at your notes later on, it’s important you keep them as succinct and as organized as you can. Hone in on the key points, use a template to keep your thoughts structured, and add your notes to a wiki after the meeting. This will make it easier to make sense of what you’ve written later on and save you — and the wider team — time.