How to Take Effective Notes in a Meeting

We all have experienced being in a meeting where we didn't take notes, and upon arriving home, we realize we don't remember much of what has been said. What can we do about it?

A person is taking notes on a piece of paper. Only the hands are visible.
Photo by Adolfo Félix on Unsplash

Taking notes during a meeting is the most effective way to learn and remember what was discussed.

We all have experienced being in a meeting where we didn't take notes, and upon arriving home, we realize we don't remember much of what has been said. Do you still remember what decisions were made in a meeting nine months ago?

Meeting notes as evidence

Do you need meeting notes as evidence of what has been said during the meeting?

First, it must be terrible to work at such an organization. Seriously. Have you considered changing jobs?

We don't need to take notes to have evidence and a track record of everything happening during the meeting. Assuming you don't need such notes for legal reasons, I suggest recording the session and generating a transcription of what was said. You'll achieve the same goal without much effort.

Meeting notes as actions to be taken

Do you write down decisions and actions to be taken? Perfect!

On the other hand, why are you doing it in the form of meeting notes? Wouldn't it be better to write those tasks directly in the task tracking tool you use? That's what Jira is for.

Please don't use random documents for keeping track of action items and to-dos. Every follow-up is a task. Every decision has the next action to be taken. All of that belongs in task tracking software.

Of course, it makes no sense to have a dozen people watching one person updating Jira - we aren't talking about planning meetings in dysfunctional agile software teams. Create a new task as soon as the decision is made. It makes no sense to gather information on a whiteboard and then copy the action items to Jira.

It won't be a big deal if you do it right away.

Who should take the notes

The problem of having a designated note-taker is usually a hot topic.

Nobody wants to be that person. Creating meeting notes is a dreaded responsibility nobody wants, but lots of people expect to see meeting notes after the session.

What can we do about it?

Share the responsibility. It is 2022. Collaborative document editing software has existed for almost two decades.

If everyone is taking notes in Google Docs or a similar tool, we increase the chances of having good meeting notes in the end. After all, if you see something missing, you can immediately add the relevant information to the document.

Of course, to stay organized, we may have one person writing a brief summary at the end of the meeting and reiterating the key ideas. However, the bulk of the work has already been done. Writing a paragraph-long summary of the discussed topics shouldn't be a big deal.

What do effective meeting notes look like?

How do we find the right balance between taking detailed notes and writing down something we will read before the next meeting? Nothing stops you from writing 200 pages of meeting notes. Good luck persuading someone to read them.

On the other hand, notes stating the key decisions, copying/pasting the meeting agenda, and adding no context are not helpful either.

What should we do instead?

As we already said, we should put the action items immediately in the task tracking tool. We don't need to repeat those in the notes. Nevertheless, I suggest linking those action items in the meeting notes. It will be easier to find them in them later. Also, many tools can display an updated task status next to the link.

Let's focus on writing down important points and the relevant context. You don't need to decide what is relevant. If everyone takes notes, they can write whatever looks like important details to them.

If people can't agree on what should be in the document, they can write their own notes, but that should be the last resort. It is better to have the same information written twice in one document but two different people than have two documents. After all, seeing two different perspectives about the discussed topic may be crucial to understanding the other team members.

Shared responsibility

When note-taking becomes a shared responsibility, it isn't a big deal anymore. You no longer have a grumpy person sitting in the corner hating the meeting and everyone who participates in it.

Also, whenever someone complains somebody should have put a piece of information in the meeting notes, you can remind them to do it during the next meeting.