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The right way to take notes

How to capture key facts, skip the fluff

by on
in Workplace Communication

There’s an art to taking notes. If you compulsively jot down everything, you may miss the nuances of a speaker’s message. But if you refuse to lift your pen, you may daydream and miss the point.

The true test of your note-taking is whether it helps you listen and digest information. You should be able to pick up your notes a month later and recall the material effortlessly.

Try these techniques to make your scribbling pay off:

Impose order. In the early minutes of a speech, listen for the presenter’s overall structure. Most speakers will lay out what will follow. They may organize their ideas under such formats as past-present-future, problem-solution-results or example-conclusion-advice. If they don’t, assign chapter headings to each major set of points the speaker makes.

Use this road map to simplify your notes. Draw lines across the page or use separate sheets to distinguish each of the main elements of the speech. And don’t forget to include a date and subject line at the top of the page for ready reference later on.

Leave lots of room. If you try to cram lots of text on index cards or use both sides of the paper, you’re doomed. As a rule, leave at least a one-inch margin on all sides of a page. That allows you to make check marks by key points later. Plus, it’ll prove easier on your eyes than if you fill up all the white space.

Note definitions. When a speaker defines a key term, write the word in capital letters and jot down the definition verbatim. If the speaker rushes ahead, raise your hand and read back your definition to confirm it’s right.

Assign labels. Just as you name file folders to signify their contents, do the same with notes. Rather than write entire sentences, extract short phrases or evocative words or acronyms that you’ll remember later.

Example: A speaker describes the “delicate balancing act we must maintain between satisfying the regulators and providing timely information at low cost.” You write, “Balance regulators/low-cost info” or—if you’re more visual—you draw a line with a bubble on each end to represent each element.

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