As a graduate student researcher, I have a million things on my mind. Putting this in the context of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, grad school and all of its meetings can contribute to cognitive strain, leaving some of my day-to-day conversations, decisions, and action items to disappear just beyond reach. Taking effective meeting notes is one of my favorite strategies for combatting forgetfulness. Plus great notes have the added bonus of providing other attendees a concise summary of the agenda, topics, discussion, and outcomes. Here are a few of my tips.
Outline ahead of time. Create an outline prior to the meeting. This is essential if you are facilitating. I tend to use Microsoft OneNote because of its excellent organizational functionality. Other great products include Google Keep and Evernote. If you don’t have Microsoft Office licensing that includes OneNote, all three of the tools I mentioned have free online versions (that require signing up for an account).
If I have a regularly scheduled meeting, for instance a weekly project meeting, I create a file for the project and tabs for each weekly meeting. The content of an outline includes:
- Meeting title formatted as “YYYYMMDD Meeting with Person/Team X”
- Date, time, and possibly location of meeting
- Concise agenda
- All topics of discussion and questions that you want to ask
- Organization of topics and content as bulleted items under section headers
Finally, I make sure to keep it short!
Preparing to take notes. Before I leave my desk to attend the meeting, I print out my outline and sometimes take a notepad for writing additional notes or sketching diagrams. Pen and paper help me later in the note-taking process to recall the content of the meeting. Everyone has their own method though, and if you are glued to your tablet, having the outline makes it easy to fill in the details during the meeting. The key is recognizing that the notes you take during the meeting are not your final product.
After the meeting. Okay, I know we tend to rush off to a class or another meeting immediately after a meeting. Life is busy! The last thing we want to do is spend an extra 30 minutes reliving the meeting we just completed. However, I recommend going back to transfer your notes—whether on paper or computer—to final notes on the computer. I divide finalizing notes into a five step process. First, choose (and type up) the big picture ideas from your meeting. Second, reword and summarize what you learned during the meeting. The point is not to include the exact notes you took during the meeting. Third, don’t type up every word you take down on paper or computer during the meeting (yes, I’m being redundant here). Fourth, the only details that are important are the ones that are required for future actions. Discard or delete everything else. Fifth, reread your notes to make sure they will make sense months later once you’ve forgotten what happened during the meeting.
Once you’ve got the notes together, save them in a common file folder if your meeting group has one and/or email the notes out to attendees.
Final thoughts. I think creating outlines are the single best way to prepare for a meeting. Even if you’re not leading the meeting or not sure how the conversation will go, make an outline that includes what you want to discuss or find out.
How about you? What do you do to get the most out of valuable meeting time? I hope you’ll consider responding below with a few tips of your own!
The author, Carrie Chennault, is a PhD student in the LESEM and PLUS labs at Iowa State University.