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How to take effective meeting notes: The ultimate guide

Last updated on
September 22, 2022
How to take effective meeting notes: The ultimate guide

Getting the right people together in a room is only part of the puzzle when it comes to running effective meetings. In this article, we’ll cover some of our best tips for taking effective, impactful meeting notes, so everyone on your team can stay in the loop and execute on what was discussed.

What are meeting notes?

Meeting notes are a quick summary of key points of information raised or discussed over the course of a meeting. They typically cover anything raised or discussed during the meeting, such as action items, new ideas, goals, roadblocks, deadlines and any other important points covered in your meeting.

Meeting notes vs. meeting minutes

While meeting notes are similar to meeting minutes in some respects, they serve a very different purpose. As the name suggests, meeting notes are just that – notes. They’re your own personal reference of what was discussed during the meeting. While you can share these around the team, they’re often for your own use – think of them as a sort of informal record of the meeting. Meeting minutes, however, serve as an official summary, or historical record, of what happened during the meeting. They’re usually concise, but provide enough context for future reference. They’re also designed as a written record of the meeting for any team member who was unable to attend, so they can quickly get up to speed on any decisions or takeaways from the meeting. While meeting notes aim to cover only the key points, minutes are generally more exhaustive and have a predefined structure. They typically include details like:

  • A list of meeting participants (as well as anyone unable to attend)
  • The setting, date and time of the meeting
  • Agenda items and key topics discussed
  • Action points or decisions made for the next meeting, as well as who’s accountable for each

Why it’s so important to take meeting notes

It makes for more productive meetings

The very act of taking meeting notes is a great way to actively listen and absorb information. It’s all too easy to zone out in a meeting, but if you’re documenting what’s being discussed, you’re much more likely to stay present and focused.

It improves retention

There’s no sinking feeling quite like leaving a meeting and immediately realizing you’ve already forgotten most of the finer details of what was discussed. This is known as Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve, a mathematical formula that shows how quickly we forget information if we don’t actively take measures to retain it. The very process of taking notes is a great way to counteract this phenomenon – studies have shown they’re a major way to boost your memory. And not only can jotting down notes help you retain a lot more detail after the fact, you’ll also be able to revisit your notes and refresh your memory on why certain decisions were made over the course of the meeting, weeks and even months later. Trying to keep every detail about the meeting in your head is a recipe for feeling stressed out and overwhelmed.

It keeps your team accountable

A well-structured set of meeting notes are a really valuable resource to draw on while projects are in full throttle mode. Looking over previous meeting notes will help you affirm information shared, debates had and decisions made. You can then ask your team the all-important questions: are tasks deadlines and project milestones really being hit?

It’s great for async communication

Scheduling conflicts are always going to crop up – that’s simply the nature of work. By sharing your notes with those who didn’t attend, they’ll be able to come away with the same information as those who were able to attend. Not only does this save everyone time on getting caught up, it should also cut down on any follow-up meetings.

Different meeting note-taking methods

Now that we understand why taking meeting notes is so important, let’s talk about the how:

1. The Cornell system

The Cornell system involves separating your notes into three parts: a smaller column to the left, a larger column on the right and a narrow section along the bottom. The left-hand column is for jotting down key ideas from the meeting, while the meatier right-hand column delves deeper into the finer detail behind each of these key ideas. At the bottom of the page, there’s then space set aside for a quick sentence or two summarizing the meeting.

2. The Quadrant method

The Quadrant method is a great way to keep track of tasks and follow-up items you don’t want to slip off your radar. You simply take your page and divvy it up into a grid composed of four sections (your “quadrants”). Then, label each section based on the type of information you want to include within each. Typically, your headings will be something like “my action items”, “assign to others”, “questions” and “general notes”. As the meeting progresses, you’ll simply drop your notes into the relevant quadrant.

3. Mind mapping

A mind map is a collection of graphics that represent different ideas and concepts that arise over the course of your meeting. This one is great to try if visual notes are more of your thing. You start by honing in on the central theme of your meeting and writing it down in the middle of your page. From there, you’ll branch out and add related subtopics, and branch out from there once more into progressively more detailed points (and so on), capturing the thoughts or ideas that come to you over the course of the meeting. At the end of your meeting, your mind map should resemble a flowchart of sorts that connects several subtopics. As a non-linear approach to note taking, mind maps tend to work especially well in brainstorms or more strategic meetings.

4. Outline method

The Outline method, as the name suggests, entails using the meeting agenda shared ahead of the meeting as your structure for note taking. You’ll jot down the key points from the agenda and as the meeting unfolds, take notes under each agenda item. An alternative approach here would be the Slide method. If the meeting presenter has prepared a deck ahead of the meeting, you simply add in notes on specific slides as the meeting progresses.

What your meeting notes should include

Regardless of the note-taking method you opt for, you should be aiming to capture the following details:

  • Key points from the agenda: A succinct recap of what was discussed from the agenda, as well as next steps for after the meeting concludes.
  • Actions to be taken: Jot down each action, the assignee and due date.
  • New ideas raised: Some really innovative ideas can come to light during meetings, so be sure to make a note of these so you can circle back on them at a later date.
  • Any questions that arise: Questions might come up over the course of a meeting that get answered, or remain unresolved and need to be addressed afterward. By capturing these, you’ll help ensure critical issues or conflicts don't slip through the cracks.
  • Key decisions made: Making a note of any next steps as well as deadlines for any action items is critical.

Tips for taking productive meeting notes

Regardless of the note-taking method that works best for you, there are a few tips you can always follow to make sure your notes are effective and useful.

Take notes before the meeting

While it sounds a bit counterintuitive, good meeting notes start before the meeting’s even begun. Use the meeting agenda, if you’ve got one to hand, as your jumping-off point. Take some time to figure out the purpose of the meeting, what’s going to be covered and the outcome the organizer hopes to get out of it. Then, spend a few minutes jotting down your initial thoughts and preparing a list of questions for each point on the agenda.

Stick to a template

A pre-built template you can crack out ahead of every meeting is a great time saver – simply copy your document as the meeting is kicking off and you can start compiling and structuring your notes right away.

Go analog

Research has shown that writing things down is more effective for learning and remembering. When typing, we also tend to try to capture everything word for word – far from ideal when you want to be present and participate in the meeting. Leaving your laptop behind and using only pen and paper is also a great way to eliminate distractions. It restricts us to single tasking – no incessant Slack pings pulling your focus away during meetings.

Use codes

Along with keeping your sentences short and using abbreviations where possible, basic code and symbols are a great way to speed up your note taking. For example:

  • Personal to-dos can be numbered in order of priority 🔢
  • Questions you need an answer to can be denoted with a ❓
  • Key topics or issues of importance can be marked with a ⭐

Don’t write every single thing down

Remember, meeting notes aren’t meeting minutes. You want to capture the key ideas that were discussed, as well as outcomes and next steps that were agreed on, rather than trying to write down every word verbatim. If you need to, you can always add more context after the meeting has concluded.

Record meetings

If the stakes are high and an especially critical meeting is taking place, we recommend ditching any live note-taking and making a video or audio recording of the meeting instead. (Side note: If you do plan on recording the meeting, you’ll want to alert everyone involved). Alternatively, you can use a free transcription service to get everything down in writing. You’ll still need to take some time (ideally, right after the meeting) to go through the recording and recap the key decisions, important insights, action items and due dates in your own voice. This will help solidify the salient points in your memory.

Share your notes

Your notes help bring the meeting to life – so make sure everyone who needs to be kept in the loop can easily access them. This includes teammates who attended, anyone who missed the meeting – or, really, anyone who would benefit from the information contained within your notes. This is also a great way to sense-check whether you missed any important points or takeaways.

Make sure everyone knows what they’re doing after the meeting

You’ve shared your notes with everyone, now it’s time to figure out who’s doing what and assign tasks to people. The most important part of your meeting comes after it – turning your notes and action items into concrete deliverables in your task management system. Everyone involved should have a clear idea of exactly what they’re responsible for in the aftermath of the meeting. Stay on schedule by setting due dates and for all tasks. Make sure that tasks, due dates, and any relevant files and documents are organized in a single place that everyone has access to, like Tasks in Timely. You’ll also want to follow up a few days after the meeting to see how action items are ticking along.

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