How do people get away without taking notes at presentations and conferences? Slides are rare and recordings practically non-existent, so… Do other people just remember? It boggles. I find it hard to remember stuff from two days ago, much less last week or last month.
Note-taking is such a big part of learning. It helps you stop wasting your time. Notes help you remember not only the key points, but also the questions and ideas you had and the actions you wanted to take. And yes, this goes for you even if you’re more of an auditory learner than a visual learner. Notes can help you remember where the interesting bits were, triggering your memory.
Not that people need to be convinced of the value of taking notes… It’s like exercise. Everyone thinks exercise is great, but not that many people do it. If I want to help people learn how to take better notes, then I have to help people get over their excuses. We are very good at making excuses for things we don’t do. I’m amazing at making excuses when it comes to exercise! At least I can help with the excuses you might make for note-taking.
Here are some perfectly reasonable reasons you might use to explain why you DON’T take notes—and some ideas for working around them.
1. “I’m not in school any more!”
Many people probably got so burned out in school that they don’t want to do anything remotely related to it, including reading books and taking notes. I understand. I didn’t get along with many of my classes. I nearly flunked some of them. But really, why let seething resentment left over from your grade school years get in the way of learning more effectively now?
(Just to clarify: I liked school. Mostly.)
2. “Taking notes makes me look stupid.”
Taking notes makes you look like you’re paying attention and that you care enough to learn. It makes you look smart. (Read Ben Casnocha: Experts Take Notes)
People generally feel flattered—unless they’re saying things that are sensitive or that they may want to deny later, in which case they’ll feel uncomfortable and might ask you to stop.
3. “I’m not fast enough to keep up while people are talking.”
Write down key words or phrases instead of whole sentences. Shamelessly abbrv. You don’t have to write down everything. (No more quizzes or final exams!) Focus on the stuff that matters to you.
If you’re taking notes on a computer, learn how to touch-type. That way, you don’t have to think about typing, you just take notes.
4. “My handwriting is hard to read.”
Slow down and write less. Bigger letters can be easier to read and write. Print block letters instead of using script. Legible is better than fast.
5. “I’m smart. I can remember this easily.”
Sure. While you’re there. Tomorrow, who knows? Your notes aren’t for your current self. They’re for your pre-coffee future self who’s frazzled and fighting fires but needs to follow up.
Also, if you need to share what you’ve learned with other people (which, by the way, is an excellent idea if you’re doing this on your company’s dime and you want your company to send you to other events), notes help.
6. “I get distracted.”
You’ll get even more distracted without notes. At least with notes, you can quickly review what was discussed and come back.
7. “I might miss something while I’m taking notes.”
Worried that writing will distract you from listening, or that looking down will mean that you miss an important slide? Start by writing less – you just need enough to remind you, and you can fill in more details later. As you practise taking notes, you’ll get better at storing things in your working memory. Most speakers repeat themselves at some point, so that’s a good time to go back and add more notes.
8. “When I look down to take notes, I can’t lipread the speaker.”
Mel Chua points out that touch-typing helps, especially if you can’t write legibly without looking. Also, in her experience, getting a good hearing aid opens up all sorts of possibilities.
9. “I never review my notes anyway.”
Taking notes will help you pay attention and remember things better, even if you don’t review your notes. You’ll get extra value if you review, though. Reviewing a large block of text can be overwhelming. Right after a talk (or shortly after, when you have time), go back and highlight key points. A highlighter or a coloured pen works well on paper. If you’ve only got one pen, go ahead and draw boxes or arrows instead. The Cornell note-taking method is great for adding keywords and summaries. On the computer, you can make things bold or change the background. That way, when you review things afterwards, you can easily jump to important information.
What else gets in the way of your note-taking? Let’s see if we can blast those excuses and get you going!
Image credits: Pen with notebook, Mikael Cedergren (Shutterstock), Burnt notepaper, Monchai Tudsamalee (Shutterstock)
Thanks to gozes, John Dietrich, Mich W., Mel Chua, and Richard Manriquez for feedback through Twitter!