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5 note-taking methods for more effective notes

By Rochi Zalani · September 27, 2023
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Note-taking is frustrating. You listen to a long meeting or webinar, jot down critical information, and still find gaps or contradictions in the notes when revisiting them. But it doesn't have to be such a teeth-clenching experience—if you combine the right note-taking method with a system to retrieve your notes. 

Here, I'll use my research and experience to introduce you to the note-taking methods that can change the way you take notes.

But first, can AI meeting assistants replace note-taking?

Short answer: no. 

As much as I love AI meeting assistants that transcribe, summarize, and improve the accuracy of meeting notes, the AI tools alone won't do the trick. You need a human touch to transform your meeting notes into something actionable and useful.

My favorite AI meeting assistant tool is tl;dv. It's my buddy in every meeting and interview. I use it to create bite-sized clips I want to reference later. Knowing it's transcribing everything helps me focus on what the participants are saying without worrying about remembering or noting everything. But it's not enough to have impeccable meeting notes. It doesn't have full context like I do, nor can it format the text in a skimmable way. I've tried many AI meeting assistants, and none produce a call summary like a human can.

What's more: in the workplace, meeting notes aren't just for you. They need to be shared with your colleagues and clients. AI doesn't produce polished enough notes to be sent to important stakeholders. 

So yes, AI meeting assistants are useful to enhance your meeting notes and write them faster. But they aren't standalone replacements for human note-takers. Not yet, anyway. 

5 methods of note-taking

The bad news: no note-taking method is right in every scenario and for every person. The good news: you can try a few note-taking ideas and choose the one that works best for you—or combine a few note-taking methods to create your own.

1. The outline method

The outline method is a structured way of taking notes—suitable for straightforward and linear topics. Divide what you're learning or recording into bullet points. There's a title, headings, subheadings, and notes under each header. 

Imagine your customer is sharing product feedback and has highlighted three primary areas of improvement. Use the outline method to make the three feedback points subheaders, and note facts about what the customer said for each of those areas in bullet points underneath.

The outline method of note-taking

The outline method isn't the best for notes that require visuals, charts, or diagrams or when you can't summarize each point neatly into a sentence.

2. The Cornell method

The Cornell method is an academic favorite because it enables you to think about the notes you're creating while you write them—rather than taking notes mindlessly.

Here's how it works. Divide your page into three: the center is for taking notes, the left column is for jotting down any questions or keywords, and there's a small third section at the bottom summarizing the ideas.

In meetings or webinars, you'd note down your thoughts in the central area, add keywords on the left side, and include a summary at the bottom. Imagine you're having a meeting deciding whether or not you should hire another employee. You note down the crux of what everyone said in the center, attribute the opinions to people on the left (or add keywords to summarize them), and add the decision you reached in the summary.

The Cornell method of note-taking

The Cornell method is useful for keeping your notes intentional and ensuring you have a takeaway from each note. But it might not give you the most organized notes for a complex topic. It's geared toward short meetings or webinars with a tight agenda and a clear conclusion.

3. The charting method

The method is in the name: you create charts or tables for comparing several items of a category. The first column lists all your choices, and each column next to it can evaluate some property for each option.

The charting method is best for meetings where you discuss what course of action to take from various options. Let's say you're considering purchasing transcription software—the first column will list all the tools you're evaluating, and the columns after it will examine each app in various parameters like price, accuracy, and more.

The charting method of note-taking

Tables and charts are a niche requirement, and they only really work when you're comparing things. The charting method isn't suitable for taking notes where you need to follow a linear progression or where the topic is too nuanced to fit into a chart. 

4. The mind map method

Mind mapping is a process of creating a diagram and using branches to establish relationships between various sub-topics. In meetings, the mind map is great for brainstorming. You can also use it to visualize a workflow.

Let's say you're noodling with your team on what marketing channels your company should use. The mind map's center will be the core topic (marketing channels); from there, it'll branch out to various channels you're evaluating. You can keep it going by having sub-branches of pros and cons for each channel.

The mind map method of note-taking

The mind map method is top-notch for taking visual notes. But it might not suffice for meetings with lots of action items and topics with many subheaders.

5. The quadrant method

As you might expect from the name, the quadrant method has you divide your page into four equal parts:

  • The first part is for general notes—ideas that came up in the meeting, points that were discussed, and more.

  • The second part is for noting down action items for yourself.

  • The third part is for writing action items for others in the meeting.

  • The fourth and last part is for jotting down any questions you have toward the end of the meeting.

In the context of meetings in the workplace, the quadrant method is the best for taking notes for yourself. Since a whole column is dedicated to action items for yourself, it's likely not useful for collaborative purposes. That said, you can play with the rules and replace the contents of the four-quadrant formula to fit your needs.

Let's say you're having a team meeting about setting your priorities for the quarter. The first quadrant can be several options you have for the upcoming year, the second can be discussion points about which option(s) you should prioritize and why, the third could contain the final priorities in a sequential order, and the last quadrant can include ownership of each priority to a teammate.

The quadrant method of note-taking

The quadrant method is adaptable to various scenarios, but it can be restrictive for brainstorming sessions or meetings discussing a single in-depth, complex topic.

Which note-taking method is right for you?

There are so many types of meetings—customer calls, 1:1 calls with your manager, collaborative calls of multiple teams, all hands, quick huddles, the list goes on—which means that no note-taking method is a one-size-fits-all for every scenario.

If you're in learning mode in a webinar or a sales call, the Cornell method or the outline method might be the best. The charting method comes out on top when making decisions. And mind maps are absolutely the best for visually representing information or brainstorming sessions.

Of course, there will be meetings where none of the above methods alone is enough. For instance, you might need to add a chart to your outline to make your notes easier to understand. Or you may come up with your own template to make note-taking easier.

The short of it: figuring out the right note-taking method for various scenarios is about trial and error. But there are certain commonalities that every A+ meeting note shares.

5 elements of flawless meeting notes

Here are a few things that all excellent meeting or webinar notes have in common.

1. The basics: date, people present in the meeting, and agenda items

The basics are things you should have in your notes before the meeting even begins. Every meeting has an agenda or multiple agenda items. No matter which note-taking method you use, the agenda should be present at the top in a sentence or two. It'll keep you on track.

Similarly, you should include the people's names who are in the meeting, so it's clear who has context and who doesn't. Having people's names also improves accountability and means you always know the right person to contact for any follow-up questions. 

If it was a team meeting, you can add a list of all the people who weren't there, too, to serve as a reminder to proactively share meeting notes with people who couldn't join the meeting.

The basic elements of note-taking

And, of course, including the date is helpful to have full context on timelines and reference future discussions easily.

2. Primary discussion points

A meeting note doesn't just include what needs to be done next without providing any context. Include the core discussion points of the meeting—and if possible and relevant, attribute them to the right person.

I personally combine the Cornell method and the outline method to jot down discussion points. The left section contains the speaker who discussed the point, and in the center, I write the discussion in bullet points using the outline method.

Outlining the primary points of a meeting

Remember to keep the discussion points short to make them useful and easy to reference. Don't write everything that was spoken verbatim—plenty of transcription tools can do that for you if you need it. The goal of discussion points is to quickly remember whatever was discussed and how the meeting arrived at a conclusion or solution to a problem.

A good rule: one bullet point should contain one sentence, and each sentence should have one idea. 

3. Action items

Every meeting you conduct or join has a goal (or it should): to solve a problem, to arrive at a decision, or to discuss several options. Your action items or summary shares the conclusion of the meeting.

Depending on the meeting, you also might have questions. Let's say a customer asked you a question, but you need to double-check with the product team before you give the answer. In this case, you also have questions to ask.

When I worked in customer success, I kept the action items simple. I divided the summary section into two: the left side was my action items and the right was the client's action items. I'd separate my action items with various symbols: an action item was a square, a question I needed to verify internally was a question mark, and a decision we'd reached in the meeting was a star.

Action items in meeting notes

You can steal the method above or keep things even simpler: anything in circles is your action items and everything in squares is the other party's action items. If there are multiple people in the meeting, use the charting method to note down who's responsible for what. You can also add due dates in one column if you have many action items of varying timelines.

Read more: Automatically follow up on meetings and action items

4. Observations (if relevant)

Writing down observations isn't relevant for internal meetings, but it's helpful when speaking with customers or prospective buyers.

When I worked in customer success, I used the observations section to note down any non-verbal cues I was picking up from the client. Why was this essential? Meeting notes don't usually express the overall emotion of the discussion—something I couldn't overlook in my CS role.

Adding observations in my notes helped me remember if my customer was angry, frustrated, happy, neutral, or excited about the product—which enabled me to gauge their overall health. I also used this column to note down individual, personal details about my client—like "excited for their company meetup next month"—so I could reference this ("How was the meetup?") in our next conversation. I kept things simple and used the outline method to write my observations. 

5. Details for the next meeting (if applicable)

If you're taking notes for a recurring meeting or if your discussion was incomplete, a "details for the next meeting section" is useful. You can use it to store next week's agenda or outstanding questions to be answered in the next meeting.

Noting down the topic or discussion points for the next meeting lightens the load on your future self and also ensures you don't forget anything important.

In my client meetings, I often use this section for any unanswered questions the customer or I have. Maybe we couldn't answer a topic because it'd require a separate meeting, or needed internal input, or we just ran out of time. Writing details for the next meeting helps me remember everything without missing a beat.

Digital or paper: Which is the more effective note-taking method?

The last battle is figuring out if analog is better than digital for taking meeting notes. As always, it depends on the kind of meeting you're having.

  • If it's an in-person interview with a potential hire, having a laptop wall and typing away can seem distracting. In some stakeholder meetings, it can even be considered rude. Similarly, in 1:1 meetings or client calls—even if it's virtual—you don't want to hear the tippy-tappy typing of the keyboard. Handwritten is best in these scenarios.

  • However, if you're shadowing a call on mute for your manager, you can focus on taking notes digitally. You can also take notes digitally in internal meetings—everyone understands that what is discussed needs to be noted.

The good thing is you can adapt all the above note-taking strategies to a paper or a digital format. So choose any format suitable and pair it with the method of your choice. If you're using paper, though, here are three extra tips:

  • Add a page number to every page and index your pages to make your notes easy to find.

  • Create sections in your notebooks or use bookmarks to categorize your meeting notes. For example, section one is for client A, section two for client B, section three for internal meetings, and so on. Sections make it super easy to find the notes you're looking for at the right time.

  • Write shorthand. You can't write as fast as you type. To not miss anything while taking notes by hand, use acronyms and avoid writing complete sentences.

Whether paper or digital, always transfer your notes to a digital format. Notebooks get lost and filled up, and it's not as easy to search through your notes on paper as it is digitally. Online apps also have organizational features like tags to make your notes more accessible and easily referenceable. Digital notes are also easier to share with your clients and coworkers.

You can transfer your meeting notes immediately after the meeting or set up a weekly calendar appointment with yourself to do the job in one go for the whole week. I love using Evernote's Skitch feature to write on Evernote directly by hand. It's also very easy to scan handwritten meeting notes—even the images are searchable. Not a fan of Evernote? No problem. Most of the best note-taking apps will let you do this.

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