A good set of notes is how we build a memory of what happened.
Good note taking is important in nearly any white collar job, particularly consulting. If we have a long conversation with a client and have to re-ask them about all the details, they will rightly be annoyed. They may demand to know what they paid for the first time we talked.
Why we take notes
In school we are taught to take notes. Teachers expect students to remember information to pass tests, write papers, and other evaluations of learning. Too often teachers will try to convince students to take notes in specific way. They may make note taking into an assignment and assessment of its own. My wife sees college students who decide that they don’t need to take notes because she does not grade them. These students do not do well. These students missed the point of taking notes. The form of the notes is not important, but the existence of them is.
When we leave school notes serve two main purposes:
- Record events of a meeting so there is a shared record later.
- Help us remember what happened so we can do our work.
Every important meeting should have someone charged with creating the first of those. How you do that task assignment is work place and team specific, but it needs to happen. Doing this well is an important skill, and every team, board, religious community, and so on needs people who do this well. But the second type of notes are often more important for day to day work; they are an important how the participants remember what needs to happen.
This second category of notes is why there is nearly always a notepad near me when I’m working. I scribble down thoughts, tasks, key points, and anything else I need to remember later. The notes I take are messy, disorganized, and useless to anyone but myself. None of that matters as long as I remember what I need to know.
Why take notes yourself
Lots of people hate to take their own notes. I have colleagues who treat note taking as a task to be avoided. Heck, I dislike being the official note taker when it’s my turn. People often fall back on the “official” notes of meetings instead of keeping their own. I have heard people go so far as to declare additional notes are just a waste of effort. I have had colleagues claim this “wasted” effort is somehow costing the client money (not true, they were in the meeting anyway).
Writing notes encourages us to engage with the content. There are no shortage of studies on the impact of note taking and memory formation. The research clear indicates that if you engage actively with information you will retain it better. Any form of note taking that encourages you to engage is a good start. That engagement can be exhausting, but that does not justify avoiding the work.
Even when in a meeting with an official note taker, our clients are best served by everyone on our team taking notes. That helps us all learn about the client needs, to contribute to the project work, as well as offer edits to official notes after a meeting wraps up.
Can an AI note taker do just as well?
The recent public emergence of generative AI has captured a great deal of attention. We are thinking of all the places that a machine can take over tasks we thought required a human – particularly those we dislike. There are already services like Otter.AI which will attend virtual meetings and generate notes for you.
My experience suggests that, right now, they are pretty terrible at their main job. The automated transcripts they require are adequate at best; their note taking ability is worse. The samples I’ve seen from meetings I was in were basically useless. Worse yet, AI tools will lie (or more accurately they generate believable, but false, information), which is getting people into trouble. After all those issues, you will need to deal with the privacy and security implications of allowing a system listen into your meetings.
One day these systems will likely be pretty good for official meeting notes, but that’s not today. Even at that point, those AI’s will not help you engage with, or retain, the information.
Do yourself a favor, no matter who or what else is taking notes, take your own.
What makes good personal notes
Fundamentally what makes good personal notes is whatever you can use to accurately recall what happened. If you are able to recall the details when you need them, your notes were good enough. If you cannot not, your notes aren’t good enough. That’s true during your education (unless a teacher is grading your notes, then play along with their instructions), that’s true in the work place.
There are several formal patterns for note taking to help you structure the information. If you are struggling to take useful notes, I recommend trying one or two to see if they work for you. Those patterns do not work well for me, and I have bad memories of being made to outline lectures, and other patterns as the “one true” solution for taking notes.
Later in my education I picked up the metric I use now: do they work. I found I retain information best when I am summarizing bits and pieces to trigger my memory. My own notes are often just a few words to draw my brain back to key points. I will write out a major decision, pronouncement, or useful quote from time to time – that extra detail emphasizes to me later that I thought was a major point at the time.
Find your own style of note taking, but do not pretend you do not need them.