More on Notetaking

In a comment to my recent article, “Notetaking Wonders and Woes,” CONTENTIOUS reader Kathy asked:

“I am a full time telecommuter and manage content on several Intranet sites. All of my meetings are via conference call. I always struggle with how to take good notes from the calls. I try to have printed pages of the web content to make notes on, but that isn’t always practical — especially with new content. Many of the calls are focused on strategy and processes, not directly to content. Any suggestions?”

…Well, yes, actually I do have lots of suggestions for people who are struggling to take good notes.

The first decision to make is whether written notes alone generally suffice, or whether you should be making recordings, too…


In Kathy’s case, what kind of information is most crucial to capture from those conference calls? That is, after the meetings, what does she really end up needing most to do her job? Just the boiled-down main points only that settle out from the discussion? Details of everyone’s position? To-do lists and status reports for each participant?

If she often needs lots of details, or if she finds herself often wishing later that she could remember exactly what a particular person said, then she probably should record the call – at least as a backup for written notes. She may or may not even need to listen to the recording, but the full detail will be there if needed.

Again, I strongly, strongly recommend digital voice recorders rather than cassette tapes. Digital recordings are much easier to search, retrieve, bookmark, store, edit, and share.

To record a phone call: All you need is a corded phone, a digital voice recorder, and an audio splitter that sends sound simultaneously to the handset/headset and the recorder. (I use this splitter.) There are other equipment solutions and even some commercial services for recording calls, but I find my recording strategy to be relatively cheap, fast, reliable, and entirely under my control.

Recording tips:

  • Always ask prior permission to record. Don’t ever start recording and then ask permission. That’s not nice, and it may not even be legal in your state or country.
  • Learn the features and functions of your recorder and other equipment well – especially how to mark important points in the discussion for fast retrieval.
  • Always check before every recording that your recorder is functioning and has fresh batteries.
  • Always check the quality of the recording right at the beginning. If recording a live meeting or presentation, bring small earphones for this.
  • Be prepared to cope if your recorder isn’t working.
  • Don’t bother to transcribe unless absolutely necessary. Transcribing is usually a waste of time.


Ultimately, notetaking is about listening, filtering, and instant analysis – but mainly about listening. If you can focus well on what’s going on, chances are you’ll remember it well later.

In most cases, it helps to take at least basic written notes, even if you’re recording. Focus on the main points of the discussion, rather than quotes (unless you’re a journalist or lawyer, of course).

Some people find it extraordinarily difficult to split their attention between a presentation/discussion and taking notes. If that sounds like you, it’s probably worth the time and effort to record the discussion, marking points in the recording as you go that correspond to key points in the discussion. (Most digital recorders have a button that lets you do this. With cassettes, zero out the tape counter before the discussion, and note the numbers that appear at important points.)

Even if you record, you still should take notes. Just make sure you’re always paying close attention to what’s going on.


If you can type fast and typing isn’t offputting to the speaker or other discussion participants, then carry your laptop (or PDA with plug-in keyboard) and type away.

Pay attention to how you think and listen. Some people think better, or differently, when they write by hand versus when they type. Different situations might call for different types of notetaking – be versatile!

Handwriting gives you the option to circle and underline things, draw arrows, jot statistics in the margins, etc. If there are printed materials, take handwritten notes freely on them. That can help jog your memory and require less notetaking. But also keep fresh paper handy, because sometimes you might need the space.

If your handwriting is hopelessly cryptic, rely on typing and recording as much as possible. Or practice improving your handwriting in small ways throughout your day.


Focus mainly on noting the most important points. Boil it down. Details are secondary. Pay attention to what kinds of information tend to jog your memory most effectively, and then take notes that capture those triggers.

Note anything that affects your personal to-do list: tasks, deadlines, new priorities, contacts, etc.

Document what’s happening inside you as well as what’s going on around you. Be sure to note your own mental observations, impressions, epiphanies, or questions. You may think you’ll remember these thoughts later, but unless you note them they’ll probably be lost.

Invent your own abbreviations, acronyms and symbols freely. Just make sure you truly understand what you’re writing, don’t confuse yourself.

Don’t worry whether anyone else can read your notes. Unless you’re the designated stenographer or scribe for a meeting or event, or if you’re attending in someone else’s place, your notes are strictly for your own benefit. They need to make sense to you, to capture the information you need to jog your memory later – and that’s it! If other people request copies of your notes, warn them that they may or may not understand them.


Sometimes, especially in meetings, the discussion moves fast and ranges widely. This can be hard to follow just with your ears, let alone while taking notes.

Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask people to slow down so you can follow them better, or to ask people to repeat or rephrase key points. This is admittedly easier in a meeting than during a conference presentation, but if you can do it, you should.

Most speakers welcome these interruptions, if handled politely and with a bit of flattery. Don’t just shout, “Repeat that!” Instead, raise your voice gently and say, “Excuse me – what you just said is terribly interesting/important. I want to make sure I’m understanding you well. Could you please explain that again?”

Or ask in an exciting, engaged tone, “Wow! So you’re saying that (insert your paraphrase here), right?”

However you interrupt people to get them to slow down and recap, if you flatter them they’ll usually play along. Everyone likes to feel listened to and important.

….There are lots of other notetaking tips and considerations, but these should help people in Kathy’s situation (and many other situations) make decisions about notetaking.

Once you recognize what works best for you, work to develop effective notetaking habits. Practice taking notes and making recordings in less-essential situations. Make listening a priority in all kinds of communication. Your notetaking will improve dramatically. Plus, you’ll look very smart and thoughtful in the process – always a bonus!

4 thoughts on More on Notetaking

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  1. That last post should have said: One of the most important things you can write down is who said it. This little piece of information is as important, if not more important, than what was said. Get in the habbit of writing down the important things that are said and who said them and I guarantee you’ll start to understand what’s going on in a whole different way!

  2. One of the most important things you can write down is . This little piece of information is as important, if not more important, than what was said. Get in the habbit of writing down the important things that are said and who said them and I guarantee you’ll start to understand what’s going on in a whole different way!

  3. Amy, you said:

    > Some people find it extraordinarily difficult to
    > split their attention between a presentation
    > /discussion and taking notes.

    There is one small point I would like to make. The ability to split one’s attention between two tasks, or a task and a process of listening, is learnable.

    The process of learning how to understand morse code might work as an analogy.

    When I was a kid, learning morse code as part of becoming a ham radio operator, we learned to hear one character, write it down, then listen for the next one.

    After that, we learn to write down the *previous* character we heard while listening to the next.

    After that we learn to write down the previous word while listening to the next.

    Ultimately, at very high speeds, people who listen to morse code are writing down short notes about the massive stream of words coming into their ears.

    If this can be done with morse code (which requires the listener to ‘translate twice’ : once from the sound the the characters heard, then into the words they represent), I’m sure it can be learned by anyone.

    So I would suggest to the Contentious readers: practice. Listen to the news on the radio, and try to write notes. It’s frustrating at first, but eventually you can learn to “write behind” rather than suffering from the feeling of never being able to catch up.

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