Many workers aspire toward a paperless office. Going paper-free means you save trees and cut down on clutter, which is a win-win.
But when it comes to taking meeting notes, paper may still be the way to go. Hand-written notes can help you capture ideas, learn new concepts, organize your thoughts, share information with colleagues, create records for future reference, track action steps, and even encourage creativity by highlighting connections between topics and generating more ideas.
Not sure how to take smart notes? Let’s take a closer look at the advantages of paper note-taking, some of the most popular note-taking methods, how to organize notes effectively, and how to choose the best notebook and writing utensil for the job.
The advantages of paper note-taking
There are several reasons why paper notes are still valuable in a digital world.
For starters, taking notes on paper (instead of typing more quickly on a computer or tablet) forces note-takers to distill concepts rather than write down the speaker’s words verbatim. Studies suggest this distillation translates to more in-depth cognitive processing and a better understanding of what you just heard. It could also lead to increased recall, especially 24 or more hours after the meeting.
It’s also smart to ditch the computer for hand-written notes if you’re prone to distraction. When you’re on a laptop or desktop, it’s easy to be distracted. A quick peek at your favorite social media site or email easily devolves into endless scrolling or an urgent desire to clear out your inbox. Taking notes on paper lets you avoid these distractions so you can concentrate more fully on meeting speakers.
Finally, paper note-taking could enhance the educational aspects of any meeting. In one recent study, researchers found that writing down notes (rather than typing them) activated larger, more learning-focused areas of the brain and optimized learning.
Common note-taking methods
A number of common note-taking methods work well for meetings. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but any of them will allow you to take notes in an organized fashion.
The Cornell Method
The Cornell method is a system that helps you take, condense, and organize notes. It also contains a review component. The method was devised in the 1940s by Walter Pauk, an education professor at Cornell University.
In the Cornell method, the note-taker divides the page into three sections.
- The main section is the note-taking section, where you write down key information shared during the meeting including diagrams, examples, comments, and so forth.
- To the left of the main section, in the margin, is a review/self-test column. In this section, write down key words or brief phrases that summarize the points from the main section. You can also include review questions here to test your knowledge of what was said. Fill in the margin as soon as possible after the meeting.
- In the bottom section of the page, summarize your notes in your own words. This is also done as soon as possible after the meeting is over.
Although somewhat work intensive, this method has several advantages. In particular, challenging yourself to revisit and summarize your notes helps you think critically about the subject matter and commit the meeting’s important points to memory.
The Outline Method
The outline method of note-taking is perhaps the most commonly used. Under this system, you place major points to the left of the page, with sub-points or supporting points in indented bullet points farther to the right.
The outline method allows you to quickly see the most important topics covered and the relationships between subjects. However, in a fast-moving meeting or one that is not carefully organized, it can be difficult to align the content with the outline method.
The Sentence Method
The sentence method is likely the most straightforward of all note-taking techniques. With this method, you simply write each new thought, fact, or topic from the meeting down on a separate, numbered line.
This method is best for quick writers in content-heavy meetings where it is not immediately clear how different points fit together. It allows you to capture most of the information from the meeting and retain more info than you would if you just wrote down everything in a lengthy paragraph.
Tips for note-taking
Regardless of which note-taking method works best for you, notes will be most effective if they include certain key information. Here are some pointers for what to include in your meeting notes. You may want to develop a meeting notes template that covers these areas; this ensures you’ll always have the key information from each meeting.
Basic information will make it easier to review and organize notes long after a meeting has ended. Be sure to include the following background details.
- Note the date in an easy-to-find, consistent place on your paper, such as the top left or right of the page.
This will be helpful when, a few weeks later, you need to go back and pull your notes from this specific meeting.
- Include the names of everyone in attendance at the meeting.
Again, place this info in a consistent, easily accessible place, such as on the first few lines of the paper. This information will let you see who had knowledge of the meeting, and it can jog your memory as to who was tasked with what. Also note who organized the meeting—perhaps include a star next to that person’s name or put that person first on the list.
- Briefly describe the purpose of the meeting.
Why was everyone gathered together? What were you trying to accomplish? Again, this should appear toward the top of the page in an easy-to-find location.
Once you have the background info out of the way, concentrate on key bits of important information that come up during the meeting. If the group works from a meeting agenda, the agenda can serve as your outline. If there is no written agenda, hopefully you can glean the agenda as the speaker presents.
Under each agenda item, include a few sentences about the key points, outcomes, and decisions. You do not need to (and should not) include every word that was said.
Frustration with meetings grows when people feel like they don’t accomplish anything. That’s why it’s important to come out of a meeting with a set of action items — an action or task that is assigned to one or more of the meeting participants.
Each action item should include enough information and be specific enough to help you (and the person assigned to the task) understand the assignment and its intended goal. Be sure to include a due date, who is responsible, and how the action item should be delivered (for instance, a letter draft by email to the director).
Summary of key takeaways
After the meeting is over, review your notes and include a summary of the key points covered during the meeting. This will help you reflect on the meeting, make sense of the discussion, and remember it better. Do this is as quickly as possible after the meeting while the conversation is still fresh in your mind.
Make sure the summary is clear, concise, and easy to follow. The goal is to be able to understand the important details of the meeting when you read the summary, even if you need to revisit the notes a year or later from now.
How to organize your notebook
Of course, no matter how organized your notes, if you can’t find them later, they won’t be of much use! It’s important to organize your notebook effectively so you can quickly locate notes from previous meetings.
The bullet journaling system provides an organizational system that helps you quickly find important information in your notebook.
- Set aside the first few pages of your notebook as a table of contents.
- Number all of the pages in the notebook. (Alternatively, buy a pre-numbered notebook.)
- As you fill in the notebook, update the table of contents.
If your notebook is used for other things besides meetings notes, you may want to develop a shorthand system so you can quickly identify meeting notes as you scroll through the table of contents. You can develop your own system or rely on the bullet journal system which uses open circles for events, closed circles for to-dos, and dashes for notes.
You could also have a notebook dedicated to meetings, in which case your table of contents would be a straightforward list of meetings, tagged by date and topic.
Tips for choosing a notebook and pen for meeting notes
If you plan to carry around your notebook, you probably want a standard-sized letter notebook or smaller. This will also be useful if you need to photocopy pages of your notes.
Do you want to rip out pages easily? If so, a ringed notebook or glued notebook might be best. Do you want something sturdier? In that case, you might want a stitched notebook.
- Paper weight
If you plan to use a dark, inky pen, heavier paper might be best (just don’t go too heavy or you’ll risk feathered ink). If you use a ballpoint pen or pencil, you can opt for a lighter paper—just be careful of tearing.
A hard cover is sturdier but tends to be a bit pricier. A soft cover is generally less durable, but its flexibility allows you to fold it in half while note-taking, which saves space.
- Lined versus blank
Blank notebooks are great if you expect to draw diagrams or write nonlinearly across the page. Lined notebooks help keep writing straight (good for messy writers!) and may be best if you plan to follow the outline method of note-taking, because the lined format naturally lends itself to numbered lists.
Choosing the right pen or pencil
In terms of your pen or pencil, again, this is a highly individualized decision. Keep in mind that some types of pens (such as felt-tip) are likely to bleed through the page. If you’re left-handed, you may want to avoid pens that smudge easily. A simple ballpoint pen is always a great option; it’s versatile and does not smudge as easily as some other pens.
That said, your best bet is trial and error—experiment with what type of pen works best. The one that makes you more likely to reach for that pen and paper and take some notes is the right choice for you!
Note-taking is a skill, and it’s an important one to develop. With the right note-taking system and supplies, you can not only record meetings but also forge connections, generate new ideas, and build a reputation as an all-around office superstar.