Few people realize how quickly our memories fade. In fact, a study from the University of Texas at Austin found that a person loses 47% of what he or she learns within 20 minutes and loses 62% of what he or she learns within 24 hours. Therefore, having solid notes from your meetings, interviews, lectures and events is essential to retaining the information discussed, and repurposing it for later use.
The following is a list of suggestions for effective note taking:
This is an obvious step, but it is worth mentioning because so many people get it wrong. How many times have you been in a meeting, class, or seminar when someone asks to borrow a pen? Or, when typing notes on a laptop, how many times have you experienced the misfortune of a dead battery and no electrical outlet in sight? It is easy to be caught off guard if you do not consider this important first step. If taking notes by hand, bring along at least two pens, ideally with differing ink colors. You may also find it beneficial to bring along a highlighter in case the speaker indicates a topic is of specific importance. You can use your highlighter to remind yourself to go back and review your notes in the future to ensure they are complete. If taking notes on your laptop, be sure and charge your battery ahead of time, or find a place to sit that is near an outlet.
It can sometimes be difficult to know what needs to be written down, and what can be left to your memory. You may find it helpful to leave lots of blank space in your notes so that you can go back and add context as needed. This will also allow you to add questions or follow-up reading material to jog your memory. Remember that note taking should keep you focused on the material. If you find that your note taking is distracting you from effectively listening, you are probably writing too much. In the words of a frequently cited Berkeley study guide, “Never use a sentence when you can use a phrase, or a phrase when you can use a word.” Keep your notes short and to the point; condense as much as possible. Develop a system of abbreviations or symbols and use them as much as possible. For example, you may find that it is useful to use a dash when the speaker is going too fast. Leave space after the dash so you can fill in the details later.
There is no reason to write down the things that you already know. This wastes valuable time and real estate. Instead, use abbreviations and symbols (as discussed above) to prioritize the “new” information, the information that you did not already know. You may also want to highlight or underline unfamiliar concepts or vocabulary so that you are reminded to look them up later. Use your blank space to fill in details about the information that was once unfamiliar to you.
An inexpensive voice recorder can make a world of difference, especially for those who choose to take notes by hand. With a voice recorder, you may choose to record every minute of your meetings and have them completely transcribed. Or, you may choose to use the voice recorder to capture key details that you forgot to write down so you can review them later. Let’s face it: the business world moves faster than ever. Having clear, unabridged records of your verbal encounters can be a huge productivity booster.