Everything I Know About Taking Notes

I did a presentation on notetaking at a recent board meeting. i have learned from many teachers about the art of taking good notes. Here are notes on taking notes:

I use basecamp for most of my work, a secure site that manages shared to-do lists and calendars, where you can store shared files and notes. I usually put to-do items directly in there, but it also helps to have great notes to look back on together.

Some folks are very spare about their notes – just documenting decisions and action items and moving on with life. But for groups who like to track the conversation as well, here’s some guidelines that help:

Before you even get to the meeting, develop a clear agenda. The agenda should be a mix of quick updates and longer conversations. Don’t spend lots of face-to-face time on stuff that can easily be shared in other ways, like updates or events. Use face-to-face time for in-depth conversation, talks that benefit from abundant in-person time.

Check that the agenda works for everyone at the beginning of the meeting. Then, take notes.

The Important Part of Notes

At the top of your notes should be a few key items that are the most important thing anyone needs to see from your notes. You can either have a note taking template that you drop things into as you go, or organize them right afterward. The key items are:

1) To-Dos
with a date assigned to them
with a person assigned to them
if you DON’T have a name and a deadline, you will likely have no action between meetings — and we need action, not a document of our collective intelligence!

2) Decisions

what actually got decided by the group? if it was a vote, how many were in favor and not? if it was consensus, say so, or that it was unanimous. this is for your future self, when you want to know “how the hell did [insert-the-decision] get decided??”…so you can look back and go “oh. on june 14, 2001, by 12 of us.”

3) Who was present

tracking who came and was part of the decisions and to-do list development helps maintain group accountability.

Now, for the rest of the notes.

Key question to ask before writing a lot here: what is the purpose of these notes?

For contentious/intense discussion, it’s helpful to document the various positions.

For brainstorming, catching the essential concepts without names is usually fine.

For any other discussion, seriously consider if notes are necessary. And while you’re at it, consider why the meeting is necessary 🙂

Across the board, here are some tips:
– for long conversations, it might be helpful to record and transcribe, or have more than one person on the notes (see below).
– it’s important to decide beforehand if you are documenting names or not.
– it’s important to know where notes will live. ‘someone’s inbox’ is not a good home. a shared space – server or basecamp or something, is generally safer.
– it’s important to know if the notes are intended for public or private documentation. (and for all my good paranoid organizers out there, if you are taking notes on your computer and emailing them to a group, think of it as public. if you are taking notes in a secure site where they will live, then it’s a bit more private, or at least shows you intend the notes to be private – notes should align to what security awareness is agreed upon by the meeting attendees) establish the sense of public/private AT the meeting.
– most meetings just need action item notes. just reiterating that point.
clearly highlight/separate new sections. otherwise it’s a blob…NO BLOBS (if you can’t see/feel the segments as you go, you can go back and divide them later)
– don’t write in code unless its agreed on and shared
– for most meetings, document the notes in a couple of different places — on big paper so everyone can see the conversation moving, AND in electronic format, for posterity. (MAKE SURE you transcribe the stuff from paper into electronic during the meeting, otherwise we just lose them, or carry around rolls of butcher paper from life to life.)
– review at end of meeting the to-do and decisions and document it clearly/quickly in your notes or your planning software

Don’t offer to take notes if you aren’t good at it, or when you will be participating too much
– taking on the task of note taking is not about fairness, it’s about having the skill to adequately document your movement building — it can hurt your group if the notes don’t clearly reflect decisions/to-dos
– if the note taker is going to participate in a specific section, he/she/it/they should ask someone else to take notes for that section…unless he/she/it/they can really multi-task. some folks can, and some folks cannot. know thyself.

How do you know what to write down?
– sometime peeps talk to talk
– check-ins (usually at the beginning of a meeting)/temperature checks (mid-meeting, to see how things are going)/bio breaks (breaks for bathroom, smokes, stretching) don’t seem write-down-able
– honestly, it’s a judgement call
– often folks will ask for clarity on something, that can alert you to jot it down
– collective notes really help. google docs or pirate pad (links below) are great spaces where multi people can be logged on and taking notes at the same time. best practice for this is to have a PRIMARY and SECONDARY note taker and tag in and out to provide support.
– templates also help. here’s a sample notes template

    –> To Dos/Action Items:

    –> Decisions:

    –> Who was present:

    –> Additional Notes

    If there are conversations you regularly have, like “upcoming schedule”, or “finances”, or “program updates”, add them to the template. Voila.

    One other thing that helps me a lot is having a few standing places where certain notes go:

    – List of decisions (documenting DECISIONS makes them OFFICIAL). In most of my work, I keep one writeboard, or notepad, that is just the big decisions we make, in chronological order so they are easy to find.
    – Calendar [why keep things in a list when you could go ahead and put it on the calendar? Every organization should have a shared calendar that all can access and add to. I’ve used both Google, Yahoo and they worked fine. It’s important that folks can sync the organizational calendar with their personal one for optimum use.]

    pirate pad

    Have tips? Please add them 🙂