I have always been an avid note taker, even when I am not the designated scribe for the meeting. People regularly ask me if I mind sharing my notes with them. Recently, a junior project manager asked me for some tips and I thought I would share with the universe.
Choose your Medium
Most articles about taking notes will tell you to take handwritten notes because you absorb things better that way. While this may be true for many, it doesn’t work for me or my process. I type faster than I write and can capture more information on my laptop than I ever will with pen and paper, and I thoroughly review and rewrite the content. However, the key is to find what works for you. How you take notes is not as important as how much you retain or absorb while you are capturing the information. If you cannot recall what the team discussed during the rewrite process, you cannot accurately document that information in the final version. Use the method that works best for you.
Prepare Ahead of Time
One of the best tricks to effective note-taking is to do as much organization before the meeting so that during the meeting, you can focus on actual content. Do this by including known information about the meeting (metadata) in a separate section (usually at the top of your notes):
- Meeting Subject
- Expected attendees
- Meeting Agenda
- Links to external resources such as documentation or online meetings / seminars (if applicable)
Keep track of the attendees as they check in or arrive. Make a note of invitees declining with reasons and invitees absent without notification. This sounds callous, but it is an effective tool for documenting who was present when specific decisions were made or establishing behavior patterns that need to be corrected or applauded.
PM Tip: I have found that participation improves when invitees know that attendance is being tracked.
Before the meeting begins, eliminate all distractions.
- Unless you are expecting a very important call, turn off your phone (even a vibrating phone can be a distraction).
- Disable email notifications and set your instant messaging to Do Not Disturb.
- Sit where you can see and/or hear what is being presented without issue.
During the Meeting
What to Capture
During the meeting, you want to capture the main points and key ideas. Don’t worry about capturing everything discussed. If you try to do that, you will miss something important. Focus on the following items:
- Decisions that are made
- Things to be actioned (including who is responsible and due date for completion)
- Items to be tabled for another time
- Other information that needs to be documented
If there are controversial items discussed, it is useful to capture the main disagreements, and any contingencies agreed to along with the final decision and who made it. This comes in handy if the topic arises again and you can refer to the notes.
One other thing to record is the beginning and ending time of the meeting, which can go into the metadata section of your meeting notes. While it may not seem like a crucial need, this information can help determine trends such as starting on time and finishing early.
How to Capture Information
People talk faster than you can write or type. There are some simple tricks you can use to help you capture information faster.
- Use bullet points and outline styles to keep things organized by topic. Don’t worry if something comes up out of sequence later in the discussion because you can rearrange it afterward during the cleanup process.
- Use partial phrases rather than full sentences. Include enough information that you can shape it later for the final draft.
- Use abbreviations and shorthand rather than writing out the full word. (i.e., mgmt instead of management)
- Color code or use symbols in your notes to highlight points such as action items, decisions, and risks.
- Use digital media to capture information when necessary. Capture a screen shot during a presentation or use a camera to get a picture of the white board for insertion into your final draft later.
- Use your position as scribe to clarify issues that need attention (if you can without disrupting the flow of the meeting).
- Ask questions if you didn’t understand or hear the speaker, because it is likely that other people also missed what they said.
- Pay attention to body language of others in the meeting. If you notice sudden movement around the room (people fidgeting or adjusting their seating posture), ask the person to elaborate. This will either clarify or lead to further discussion.
One of the most useful tools I use is the tagging feature in MS OneNote. I often set up custom tags related to project management, allowing me to highlight details real-time and summarize later. Common tags that I use are:
- To Do / Action (with a checkbox)
- Important (with a star)
- Decision (with a check mark and highlighted green)
- Risk (with a flag and highlighted red)
- Issue (with an exclamation mark and highlighted blue)
- Question (with a question mark) - Often used during technical discussions where I might not fully understand whether or not this is a key point. This lets me record the information and find it easily.
- Answer (with a comment bubble) - Following the question asked.
Cleanup and Publication
At the close of the meeting, ask others for copies of their notes and let everyone know you will send out a compiled draft for review. After the meeting, follow-up steps include:
- As soon as you can, analyze your notes and expand on anything that may seem fuzzy. You want to do this while it is still fresh in your mind so you can add clarify anything written in haste.
- Using a standard format so that notes are consistent from meeting to meeting, type or copy your notes into the document. Organize them by key points and rewrite any shortcuts or partial phrasing into full sentences and proper wording.
- Send out a draft to selected or all participants for review and ask for any modifications by a specific date and time. Remember, people are busy so give a reasonable deadline. Let them know that if it needs no changes, this draft will become the final document.
- Once your final draft is ready, publish it via your company standards. As part of my project communications plan, I configure an accessible place (either on SharePoint or in a shared network folder) where team members can access the documentation at their discretion. I publish the completed notes and notify the team they are available with an email containing both the link to their location and an attached copy of the document.
Meeting notes can help keep your project on track by producing timely, organized information pertinent to the project management process. Knowing how to take good notes and turn them into solid documentation can help ensure that team members stay informed and project communications are open.