In Praise of Taking Meeting Notes the Analog Way
Sometimes the keyboard can be a hindrance.
Once upon a time I built a little database on my laptop to simplify tagging notes I took during a series of meetings to clarify requirements for a large call center’s customer support system. The idea was that during the meetings I would type brief notes into a form and then, before saving, quickly add up to three tags selected from drop-down lists describing key requirements categories. When the meeting was over I’d then clean up the text before sorting, summarizing, and proceeding on to the next meeting. (This all took place in Hong Kong but all the meetings were in English).
The process seemed like a good idea at the time but didn't really work that well. Real-time tagging as I envisioned it wasn't nearly as important as I had imagined as we hadn’t completely formalized the requirements yet. Also, my rudimentary typing skills weren't really up to the task. Eventually I returned to manual notetaking followed by post-meeting data entry, tagging, and summarization based around a structured vocabulary expressing key requirements concepts.
Perhaps software based on natural language processing technology has improved since then. Manual note-taking still seems more suited to the mental processes involved in my own listening, hearing, and word and phrase selection. I've also found that, when writing, I do better using a pen on paper followed by use of speech-to-text software to create an editable file. This process is documented in How I Speed Up Writing & Editing and I tend to use this approach for drafting both long and short documents.
I was reminded of this notetaking experience recently when I read James Sudakow’s Want to Take Better Notes? Ditch the Laptop for a Pen and Paper, Says Science. This is one of the things he says about notetaking during meetings:
“…many of us still try to "multi-task" during meetings while listening to whatever is being discussed. The science tells us that we literally can't listen to one person while doing another form of communication at the same time on our laptop (kind of like trying to listen to a conference call while writing an e-mail).”
Of course, there are different types of multitasking. I admit that I'll occasionally check Twitter or Facebook during a boring conference call. If I'm really engaged while conferencing or on the phone I'll have a notebook and pencil and paper handy for constant notetaking. Sometimes I'll use abbreviations and shorthand to represent words or phrases, and sometimes I'll write down phrases verbatim. Rarely will I attempt real-time summarization or interpretation. My ear-brain-and-hand coordination isn't fast enough for that.
There are situations where such real-time manual notetaking will not work. Active meeting participation or meeting leadership makes note taking difficult or inappropriate. For example, if you are meeting with the President about sensitive legal topics you may want to write down the details after your meeting while the details are still fresh.
Another example when note taking might be insufficient is when the exact wording of what is said is required. In such cases appropriate manual or automated approaches should be sought that yield an accurate transcription, an example being where a recording of a one-on-one meeting with the President might be very useful later on when testifying before Congress.
Meanwhile, you'll see me taking notes -- by hand -- using a spiral bound paper notebook and a pencil or pen (or more likely a fountain pen, but that's another story!)
Copyright © 2017 by Dennis D. McDonald. An updated and edited version of this post appears in aNewDomain here.