Some Thoughts On Taking Notes

Sticky Notes: Slinky
Credit: DeviantArt / w01fSPARTAN118

I read this article by Ben Casnocha on taking notes, and whilst my previous note taking had been somewhat sporadic, this motivated me to step it up and take notes at every talk I attend. I’ve also been taking more notes when I read, taking time at the end of every chapter to add some takeaways to a doc on my phone (this makes the chapters I don’t get much out of more apparent – I have nothing to write).

I write these up on my blog where possible (and permissible), although I confess I’m far behind on this. This was originally just to have a place to put things, but sometimes people find it useful – this talk from GHC, for example.

Definitely, it improves my retention, and also (if I managed to post them) it gives me something to refer back to. I don’t type, because if you’re using a laptop the assumption is not that you’re taking notes, and it’s too easy to multitask, so maybe I wouldn’t be (also laptops are heavier, with worse battery life – I don’t usually carry mine to talks). Usually, I use pen and paper, but sometimes (like when I use up a notebook during a conference! Or a pen!) I use the notes app (just the regular one) on my iPad or iPhone. This has mostly been fine, although I did lose a bunch of notes using my tablet once. I don’t know exactly what happened – my attention was split between the keyboard and the presenter – but it wasn’t possible to undo. I was really sad about that, it was a really interesting talk. And haven lost all my notes more than half way through, I didn’t know what to do – taking notes on the second half just seemed redundant. I actually prefer taking notes on my iPhone, because I’m closer to touch typing there than any other device, including my Android Nexus 5.

So most of the time I end up going over them again before I post them. Whilst technically inefficient (double touching!) this is sometimes when I get the main value of the talk – I see the full arc better, recognise the key points, and go and look at the extra resources that get mentioned. It’s where I see the links between the start and the end, and the narrative that the speaker constructed, if they did construct one.

One thing that taking notes has highlighted to me, is how little content many talks have. Taking notes separates the delivery from the content. Some talks are in many ways great, and full of information, jump around too much and would benefit from adding a coherent narrative that ties it all together. Another example is that recently I saw a talk that I think had I not been taking notes I would have been really impressed by. The speaker was energetic, charismatic, and passionate about what he was doing. But in black and white, pen to paper, it was clear to me that this was just a talk about White Male Privilege (good article on life hacking and WMP). It didn’t really have that much value.

(Maybe I could reduce the backlog by removing that kind of talk from my todo list).

I need to get better at keeping up with what people say, I am not good at writing and thinking at the same time and tend to pretty much take down everything they say almost verbatim rather than pulling out key concepts. A lot of people talk very fast, although my (unscientific) observation is that the faster people are talking the less of what they are saying I need to take down. Speakers who have a moderate pace, are actually packing in more content.

Anyway, approaching a year into this experiment, I see more and more reason to keep at it. Because I think it’s made me a better speaker, too – I think more about what are the main points that I want someone to take away, now. I work harder to tie things together.

The only downside? I gave a talk to my team, and everyone politely shut their laptops. And I was a little disappointed that no-one was taking notes.

8 thoughts on “Some Thoughts On Taking Notes

  1. Taking notes with a computer is an entirely different skill than taking notes with paper, and a different skill again from doing without the notes. I had to learn to learn without notes and then with the computer while recovering from an arm injury, but writing is still the easiest way to focus my mind! I’m getting better on using other ways to focus, though, since I find I don’t *look* as much when I write. Knitting has been surprisingly useful in that respect, since there’s plenty of projects I can do without looking now.

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    1. Oh interesting! I never thought about knitting helping. I definitely look when I write, although I don’t touch type properly, I don’t have to look much when typing. I wonder if that would help?

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  2. You’re totally right, I do retain a lot more when I take notes, and yet I haven’t gotten into that habit of always carrying around something to take notes with…maybe a good excuse for getting one of those new colorful Moleskines (any excuse to buy pretty stationery, right?)

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    1. Yes! I have a really cool lego moleskin, although I’m often just grabbing a notebook at work on my way out to an event 🙂

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  3. Yeah, notes really show you whether a presentation actually has a lot of content and whether you’re walking away with something you’re going to act on. I find that sketchnoting is good because I can’t write as fast as I type, so I’m forced to summarize along the way. http://sachachua.com/blog/2013/08/resources-for-getting-started-with-sketchnoting/ has some tips. Happy to chat about notetaking strategies! =)

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    1. Thanks 🙂 I’ve never thought of trying sketchnoting as a way to summarise.

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