The Fine Art Of Note-Taking

Ginger Shimp

I took a peek at my son’s school notebook recently. If less really is more, he takes terrific Student Taking Notes in Lecture Hall --- Image by © Simon Jarratt/Corbisnotes. I’m not even sure why I spent $5.49 on that notebook. The back of a ticket stub would have sufficed.

Note-taking is a personal thing. We each have our own method … but surely some methods are better than others? Indeed, much has been written on the ultimate way to take notes, but how we take notes will always be a product of our personality, our abilities, and our disabilities.

I have a friend who learned shorthand in high school; she writes absolutely everything down and can repeat it all back to you with the alacrity of a prodigious parrot.

Then there are people like my son, who — so far — has done exceptionally well just by keeping it all in his adorable head. (Gimme a break; he’s my kid!)

The Cornell method is the classic system for note-taking. It’s easy to learn and works well for lectures or taking notes from reading.

Mind-mapping is great for brainstorming sessions, but it can get out of control if the session roams off topic.

I’m a speedster when it comes to note-taking, but I’d rather not write absolutely everything down. I think the art of note-taking involves writing down not only the salient facts, but also a certain amount of context to go with it.

Being an excellent note taker has some advantages and disadvantages. Once you get a reputation for taking good notes, you may be viewed as the company scribe and can be treated as a secretary and not as a key contributor. So while I take great notes, I try to keep that a secret and I’m very reluctant to share my notes with anyone. I think of it as my own personal competitive advantage. (Psst … please don’t tell my co-workers, ‘kay?)

Typically I resist writing anything snarky in my notes, just in case they should fall into the wrong hands. It’s the literary equivalent of forgetting to put the phone on mute. I’ve made a resolution to maintain a positive attitude at work, so I try not to even let snarky thoughts enter my head. Just in case, I employ the bookmaker’s favorite method: I keep a candle burning on my desk at all times and write my snarky thoughts down on flash paper. I love the little “pfft!” as all that negative energy is released into the cosmos, never to haunt me again! Not kidding. My candle is very tall (or, well … it used to be), purple, and smells of lavender.

Most often my notes are a way of affirming what was said and what was promised in a meeting. I always note the date and time as well as who was present at the meeting, and any action items and deadlines that arise out of said meeting. Immediately following a meeting, while the info is still fresh in my mind, I review my notes to make certain they are as accurate and complete as possible. I often follow up by sending an email confirming the deadlines and action items to all involved.

That seems like a lot of work, but so many times when I have been accused of dropping the ball these notes worked better than a “get out of jail free” card.

“We never discussed . . .”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure we did.”

“I thought that . . .”

“Nope. Don’t even go there. Did you read the recap I sent?”

“Um . . . no . . . “


Just kidding. This isn’t really just about “CYA”, though taking good notes can certainly function that way. It’s really about holding ourselves accountable. In fact, if we are engaged in less-than-scrupulous activities our notes could be used against us. Martha Stewart learned that the hard way. When in doubt, ask your lawyer if you should really commit your thoughts to paper.

But better hold that conversation in person.

In the middle of a dessert.

Okay. Perchance that’s taking paranoia a bit too far.  ;-)

I have real frustration with meeting leaders who insist we put away our laptops and tablets, convinced we’re multitasking at best, or engaging in personal pursuits such as online shopping or social media at worst. I happen to type very quickly and I prefer to commit my notes to screen so that they can be filed, amended, shared, etc. I use Microsoft OneNote so that I can color-code, access from my computer or tablet or phone, share with others, etc. However, knowing that some people have an aversion to the modern age, I always come prepared to go Old School.

The point is that how we take notes will vary greatly depending on our personality, the note-taking situation, and how much plausible deniability we need. In any case, never go to a meeting without a pen and a notepad; if all else fails, you can get some quality doodling time in.

Ready to take notes on running your business? See 11 Lessons From The Small Business Coach.

About Ginger Shimp

With more than 20 years’ experience in marketing, Ginger Shimp has been with SAP since 2004. She has won numerous awards and honors at SAP, including being designated “Top Talent” for two consecutive years. Not only is she a Professional Certified Marketer with the American Marketing Association, but she's also earned her Connoisseur's Certificate in California Reds from the Chicago Wine School. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of San Francisco, and an MBA in marketing and managerial economics from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. Personally, Ginger is the proud mother of a precocious son and happy wife of one of YouTube's 10 EDU Gurus, Ed Shimp.