On Note Taking

Most of us have sat through meetings that bounce from topic to topic and our notes turn out like this -->

We leave an engaging meeting only later to find our notes disconnected and organized by stream-of-conversation.

This also happens when I take notes while reading.  I will be reading a book and something I read in chapter 7 provides insight on something I read in chapter 2. And then I lose the idea or put it in the wrong place in my notes.

Not too long ago I went (for a second time) to an amazingly fun class on speed-reading and note taking. Here are a few key takeaways I’d love to share on note taking.

Is there a way to capture notes so that when an idea comes up that belongs with an earlier topic we can go back in our notes and easily add the idea to the right place? The instructor of the class thought so.

She suggested that for each meeting, book, or other boundary on a topic, take a sheet of paper and draw a line from one corner of the page to the opposite corner. Add the topic on the line and write the date in the corner (with year). Once that is done, add a horizontal line for a new topic that comes up and capture any key points or ideas using smaller lines off of the topic line.

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It is really easy to go back and look at old notes and review content from years ago. And if you are like me, you have notes that are 3-5 years old that you go back to and review every now and again. 

When I was a kid we used to call these fishbone diagrams, and guess what? They work! As the conversation turns back to a topic covered earlier, or I read something that helps me understand a point made in a different topic area, I can easily go back and add a note or idea.

I still enjoy pen and paper for note taking, but with the capability of tablets and other mobile devices, I find myself using Microsoft OneNote in draw mode. I use a stylus to capture notes as

often as I use pen and paper. The advantage to the tablet is the notes can be shared across multiple devices, sent to others, and more importantly, I can capture audio during a meeting. When I review and add to my notes, I listen to the audio to make sure I captured the key information.

One additional value this provides me is having a tool that helps me understand whether I have captured all of the information I need for a topic area. Most instructional designers for courses and books will tell you they break topics in similar sized chunks, typically 5 topics (plus or minus 2), and the cascade and flows are all similarly grouped. If I look at my notes and have few notes for an area, I either go back and review that topic area or intentionally realize that the topic is something that I find no value in.