How to Take Meeting Notes: A Comprehensive Guide

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Productivity : 9 min read

How to Take Meeting Notes: A Comprehensive Guide

Taking meeting notes is an underrated skill that can power up your job performance by a long shot and level up future-proof soft skills like organization, active listening, and innovation.

That’s why it’s surprising that many people don’t take notes at all, which makes it hard to recall important details. Others take notes but do a bad job. Often, either they can’t listen and take notes at the same time, or they write down irrelevant information.

Whether it’s a big brainstorming session, an interview with a client, or meetings with your team, meeting notes help you remember more details—and do your job better.

Not a bad trade-off, considering how most of us feel about meetings.

In this article, we’ll go over seven steps to better meeting notes:

  1. Take notes before the meeting
  2. Don't write down everything
  3. Focus on what comes next
  4. Organize toward action
  5. Use the right retention strategy
  6. Back it up with recordings
  7. Sum it up ASAP

1. Start taking meeting notes before the meeting.

Sounds crazy, we know.

Meetings are long enough as it is, and the idea of spending more time thinking about them probably isn’t very appealing.

However, preparation will help you out here, particularly if you’re not experienced with taking notes (or tend to take down the wrong information during a meeting).

Before you get started, identify the objective of the meeting. Establish what the meeting is about and the desired outcome.

From there, design an outline that includes details like:

  • Date and time of the meeting
  • Purpose of the meeting
  • Who is involved in this discussion
  • What should be accomplished
  • Any questions that need to be answered
  • Action items and next steps
  • Deadlines and milestones

Keep in mind, an informal meeting probably won’t come with an official agenda.

If that’s the case, simply ask the person scheduling the meeting a few questions that'll help you identify the purpose and desired outcome of the discussion.

In this situation, we’d recommend preparing by building your outline around the core objective and preparing a list of questions. This way, you’ll have an idea of what you should listen for.

2. Don't worry about capturing every word.

Think back to your school days. Remember trying to write down every word your algebra teacher said, hoping to capture anything that might be on the test? It was hard to keep up and listen at the same time.

While many people write too little during meetings, attempting to write down every word is just as ineffective.

Consider dividing your notes into the following sections to boost efficiency:

  • Issues
  • Decisions
  • Action items
  • Questions

Try to keep sentences short, writing down only keywords, decisions, and assignments.

For more formal meetings or instances where you’re the designated note-taker, consider using some variation of the meeting minutes process, which is essentially a tangible record of everything that happened in a meeting.

While meeting minutes are a whole other topic, a big part of that strategy is capturing the most important information.

3. Meeting notes should focus on what comes next.

One might say that capturing action items is the most important reason to take notes in the first place—the reason the meeting is happening at all.

Be sure to write down all actionable items, decisions, and recommendations—and sum them up in your own words to reinforce your understanding of what’s supposed to happen next.

Record items as they come up, rather than after the meeting when time starts to mess with your memory. This will ensure that you capture the most accurate information.

4. Organize toward action.

Note-taking alone won't help you retain information or remember due dates. You have to revisit that information to get the most value out of it.

One of the hardest parts of note-taking is staying organized. So, after the meeting, add your notes to your CRM and turn action items into tasks, with reminders, due dates, and all.

In Copper, for example, this can all be done in seconds since it’s integrated with G Suite—you can create and update GCal events and reminders, Gmail contacts, tasks and notes all in one place.

As you can see here, task owners can assign specific to-dos to team members, which keeps everyone accountable post-meeting:

tasks in copper crm

Pro-tip: If you’re taking sales notes or need to update a client account, make sure these items get logged ASAP.

5. Find a retention strategy that works for you.

Whether you’re a chronic highlighter or a believer in recording every word verbatim, bad news—these strategies don’t work very well.

One of the most important things to understand about note-taking is, if you want to improve your memory or understand new concepts, you need to put in some active effort.

In 1895, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus began experimenting with memory and recall—developing the forgetting curve, which represents just how quickly we lose new information if there’s no retention strategy in place:

forgetting curve for notes

As you can see in the forgetting curve, the secret to long-term retention lies in repetition. Whatever your preferred note-taking method, you’ll want to make sure you review notes shortly after the meeting to reinforce what was discussed.

Revisit the old-fashioned art of handwriting.

Okay, we’re willing to bet that you spend a great deal of time glued to your computer. We all do. We live life on the web now, for better or worse.

Still, you may want to swap your digital notebook for an analog one from time to time—research has shown that taking notes via laptop might be fast, but it’s not always the most effective method.

So, when should you write by hand?

According to a 2014 joint study between UCLA and Princeton, analog note-takers come away from a lecture (or meeting) with a stronger conceptual understanding than those using their laptops.

If the goal of taking notes in this meeting is to provide a written record to everyone after, then typing is the way to go. However, if notes are for personal use or cover big-picture ideas, bring the pen and pad into the conference room.

Writing by hand forces note-takers to listen and distill in one take, as there’s no way you can capture every word. This means, you’re analyzing content in the moment—which promotes retention.

Here are some note-taking techniques to help you keep track of everything that happened in the meeting.

1. The Cornell Note-Taking System

You can read about it in more detail, here, but the Cornell Note-Taking System is a popular method where the note-taker jots down basic notes on the right side of the paper and records key points and takeaways on the left.

At the bottom of each page, write a short summary of your notes. This should only be about a sentence or two.

The main benefit of the Cornell Method is that it allows you to structure your notes properly from the beginning. Additionally, this approach allows you to get topic-specific, so every point that you write down has context.

The Cornell system also includes a concept known as The Five Rs, which (whether you like the linear note-taking method or not) are worth applying to your retention strategy because they help you become an active listener and they reinforce concepts covered during the discussion.

The Five Rs:

  • Record: Jot down key concepts, facts.
  • Reduce: After the meeting, sum up the recording information into keywords and questions.
  • Recite: Repeat or rewrite what was recorded in your own words.
  • Reflect: How will you work with this information and what are your thoughts?
  • Review: Review notes that same day and revisit them periodically for long-term retention.

You're doing more than copy down information. You sum it up, repeat it in your own words, then apply your notes in a practical way.

Here’s what a typical Cornell note page might look like:

cornell notes

When to try the Cornell Method:

This method works best for situations where you’ll need to share information with others later on or meetings that cover several concepts in detail.

2. Quadrants

This note-taking approach is a simplified version of the Cornell method, and reportedly a Bill Gates favorite.

The idea is super simple—grab a sheet of paper and divide it into four sections with the following labels:

  • Questions: Any questions that come to mind during the meeting. Make sure you get an answer before leaving.
  • Notes: Anything that comes to mind during the discussion. Notes aren’t necessarily action items; they might just be insights that pop into your head.
  • Personal to-dos: Deadlines, projects, and milestones you’re responsible for delivering.
  • Assign to others: Information you need to pass along to others. This might include tasks that you assign to your direct reports or an outside contractor.

During the meeting, add notes to their corresponding quadrants as you receive information or think of new ideas.

The benefit of this is that you’ll leave the meeting with a pre-organized (or, at least categorized) set of notes, saving you the effort of sorting action items and questions later on.

When to take quadrant notes

This method works best for updates and team meetings where the main objective is keeping track of assignments or follow-ups you don’t want to forget.

We like this approach because it’s a simplified way to stay organized—although if you’re the designated note-taker or need to send your notes to your colleagues, you may need a more detailed method.

3. Mind-mapping

If linear note-taking isn’t your thing, you may want to give mind-mapping a try. A study from The British Journal of Educational Technology found that nonlinear note-takers tested 20% higher than linear note-takers for comprehension.

Mind maps are graphic representations of ideas and concepts, allowing people to capture several ideas at once and combine them or make connections. Here’s a particularly artistic map found on the aptly-named Mind Map Inspiration blog:

mindmap example

How to make a mind map:

  • Come up with the main theme and write it down in the center of a page.
  • For example, you might write “content strategy” in the center of the page, then draw lines that branch out to represent sub-topics.
  • Continue “branching out” to make increasingly detailed points.

When to give mind maps a try:

Mind maps work best in a brainstorming session, allowing you to capture a lot of information quickly without the confines of a more linear note-taking method.

This makes them useful in a strategy meeting, where you’re coming up with new ideas during the discussion and want some flexibility to record whatever thoughts emerge during the session.

Retention strategies are personal and contextual.

Ultimately, choosing a note-taking method depends on what you hope to gain from the meeting and its context. Mind maps, for example, probably won’t serve you well in a sales meeting about quotas and pipelines. In that scenario, the quadrant approach might work better, as you can quickly jot down deliverables and decisions.

Finally, you’ll need to figure out whether it even makes sense to go “all in” on note-taking. If you’re talking to a client about their goals or interviewing someone for a whitepaper, it might be better to focus on the conversation.

Which, brings us to this next point:

6. Back it up with a recording.

If there's a lot of ground to cover, you may want to skip the laptop and record the meeting on a recording device or app like.

This will help you focus on asking the right questions and nurturing the relationship further, instead of scrambling to jot down notes.

If you do plan on recording the meeting, you’ll want to set aside some time after the meeting to record key takeaways and to-dos in your own words so you reap those retention benefits.

When to record a meeting

So long as the other meeting participants have no problem being recorded, feel free to lean on your recorder for backup during any type of meeting.

We recommend recording the conversation in cases where you need to both be an active participant in the conversation and remember a lot of information. Interviews, client calls, and strategy meetings all fit the bill here.

7. Sum it up ASAP

Prepare a written report based on your notes while the meeting is still fresh in your mind. Whether you need to submit any formal documentation or not, completing a written report gives you an opportunity to break down what was discussed and keep track of the details that matter to customers and colleagues.

Besides, while the visual notes are practical during the meeting, if you don’t act quickly, you’ll forget what those little doodles and symbols were supposed to represent.

Finish the process by summing up anything important that happened at the end of your notes. Depending on the type of meeting, the length will vary.

A one-on-one meeting can probably be summed up in a couple of sentences. By contrast, a discovery call with a new client may come with multiple paragraphs and calendar entries you’ll need to add ASAP.

Make space for meeting notes, whether it’s mind maps or minutes.

Taking effective meeting notes isn’t just for old-school secretaries. It’s an important skill that’ll serve you well whether you’re in customer service, the C-suite, or somewhere in the middle, rising through the ranks.

Before heading into the conference room or jumping on a sales call, you want to be able to remember what was discussed and retain that information long-term.

Next time there’s a meeting on the calendar, take some extra time to prepare an outline. This way, you’ll have a framework in place for jotting down the big ideas and to-dos that make your job easier.