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The Magic of Notes.

Authored by – Arlene Andrews.

Far from being unneeded, taking effective notes, and having them trigger memories of an event, is a skill that is still very relevant. From sketch notes, doodles, and outlines – the process of manually taking notes is coming back into the fore. Finding your own personal style of note-taking will take practice. However,  you will find that many times, the notes you take are more effective than the ones you used to type on the computer, tablet, or mobile device.

In the rush of getting business done, especially during changes or in a quick meeting, the process of getting information stored is becoming vital. Not only is this a tracking and documentation issue, but makes very sure that the correct people know what is happening, who is in charge of specific areas. This also gives an accurate evaluation of the skills, contributions, and abilities of every team member – from the newest intern to the end customer themselves. But we are hurried, and this information is becoming more likely to be missed.

Unless there is someone consulting, there likely isn’t a recording made of meetings that everyone can refer to in the future. It is now almost expected that when you go to a meeting, your laptop is open and ready, and your phone is nearby. Neither of these encourages you to observe what’s happening during the meeting, nor pay attention to what’s being said. Being present and engaged is a problem when any words being spoken are funneled directly from the ears into the keyboard.

I know this is something I have a problem with: I will concentrate so much on typing out notes – or recording every word that said perfectly – that I don’t pay attention to what’s actually going on until I read it. One businessman I know has recently banned all laptops and telephones from any meeting – even a short stand-up. The theory is that people will pay more attention to discussions, participate more, and be more aware of potential issues. And it has created a noticeable effect.1

Taking notes is an important skill that can add value to your business and to your career. After much less practice than you may believe, you can quickly learn to sort out the relevant information you need and write it down with just enough detail to trigger memories of who was speaking and the subjects. There is even proof of this: Using a written form, on paper, engages both your focus and your motor memory to allow a better grasp of concepts, both with an instant review and over a short time period2. I can attest to this: my handwritten notes are valuable, and usually trigger thoughts and connections later. So not only do I have the original material, but, in a more relaxed environment, I can add other information, and explore questions and possibilities.

Your notes also provide proof of work. The quick notes that you make can be expanded on (and, if your handwriting is anything like mine, re-written so they are readable once the meeting is over), which also gives you the chance to add more room for idea connections and additional questions to what you heard. Also, since it is fresh in the minds of the participants, if there is an area that you are unsure of your understanding, this is a good time to ask for a detailed explanation. Which may, of course, result in another batch of notes. But you will then be able to move forward with confidence and have the notes to refer to at a later time.

From the Moleskine notebook and the pack of 3 x 5 cards that have become associated with one business owner I am acquainted with, the well-designed rooms for testers where tables and seats are designed with handwriting in mind, and the special notebook the Ministry of Testing has designed for one of their events, the tools we use can become part of our personal look, as well as being a truth source. The key here is to try many different tools, and use the ones that you find are effective and comfortable.

Notebook from Ministry of Testing group.

I have been, personally, delighted in the rise of sketch notes that are coming from the skilled folks at conferences. Not only are they a delight visually, but they also allow a look at how this person feels the concepts overlap. I am not skilled with drawing, but even a quick set of boxes to show a workflow or a larger question mark over a section where I can reserve this area for topics I want to ask about has proven to be a help. A resource for ideas on how to start with sketchnotes is https://www.core77.com/posts/19678/sketchnotes-101-the-basics-of-visual-note-taking-19678

Other techniques are out there: everything from a formal column system to doodles that separate and define areas of importance. And workshops on taking notes are starting to come up at many of the larger conferences – as well as being shared online. Every person has their own style – mnemonic devices that make sense to them – and this makes the notes you take even more powerful than a word-for-word transcript of what was said.

Let your personality and focus make the notes for you!

And this brings up the issue of “Who takes notes?” A clichè is that one person is chosen to make notes – every time – and anything that is missed, or not understood is their problem. Not only is this a potential downside if that person is not there that day, but they have to try and get notes for everyone’s point of view. The benefits of note-taking by more than one person means that you will have notes that focus on what is important to you – and a team may have several people that have overlapping notes. This helps with understanding and making sure that everyone is getting an understanding of the important concepts. Even Lynda, the online education site, offers Note-Taking for Business Professionals (https://www.lynda.com/Business-Skills-tutorials/Note-Taking-Business-Professionals/373782-2.html).

There is also the need for fail-safes. Recorded meetings are much less common than the used to be, so your notes now are the sources of truth. Yes, you can get a quick meeting with someone in the hallway to clarify a point – but write it down, in your own words, once you are done. This is never to be used as blame but to have a good working plan for this section of the project, or meeting, or activity. Once the larger meeting is done, the people working together have an understanding of what needs to be done, and they can take these notes, and make the first plan to get it accomplished.

Try this

In the age of the Internet, there are many possibilities to practice note-taking. Many conferences or businesses have either recorded talks or webinars, and these are great for practice. Choosing a familiar subject will allow you to try out different styles and methods, as well as increase your awareness of that subject. Later, a TED or TED-X talk is about 15 minutes, and the information is concentrated, as it may be in a meeting to solve a crisis. This is a great way to make sure that you are getting the important points. I also suggest choosing a topic that is of interest, but above your level of knowledge – you may be surprised to find out how much you do actually know about the subject, once you read over your notes.

References

1: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/11/laptops-banned-meetings-notes-verbatim-type-understand/

2: https://www.medicaldaily.com/why-using-pen-and-paper-not-laptops-boosts-memory-writing-notes-helps-recall-concepts-ability-268770

About the author

Arlene Andrews

Arlene Andrews is a self-guided learner, moving into the Quality Advocate section of the tech world, and has been selected to guest write and review on podcasts, articles, classes, proposals for conferences. Having previously worked in a wide range of positions including both customer service and HR, she has a worldview of supporting customers, and is a fan of learning and applying new things. Moving into technology has been a huge leap, and she has a passion for connecting people to resources that will foster improvements.

Reviewed by – A volunteer at women testers.

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