As part of my recent talk about getting the most from events and championing ideas, I mentioned a brief theory on how to take notes. I presenting an updated version as the closing session of An Event Apart Boston and wanted to share the advice here.
I call the theory minimum effort for maximum value, or Min / Max Note Taking. The theory is simple:
- You won’t remember much in a week – Human memory is poor and is not as reliable as we believe. Events compress many sessions back to back which puts even more pressure on our cognition. With each session that goes by you remember less and less about everything.
- You won’t return to the slides – slide decks are often poor references for talks anyway, since if the speaker does a good job they used the slides to support their talk, rather than the other way around. Slides help most if you know what you’re looking for.
- You need to capture brief reflections TODAY – while you are at the event, while your brain can still provide value to the future you about what there was to learn from the event.
For each session, commit to doing the following:
- When a session ends, immediately make a list of 5 bullets per talk. It doesn’t matter what they are. They can be negative statements, positive statements, quotes you want to remember or even questions you asked or want to ask. If you write a good short list it will guide you later for how the slides or other materials might be useful. Write for the future version of you, the you that will be alive a week from now, who will forget much of the context you have in the current moment. Be kind to the future you.
- Use breaks and lunch to catch up and summarize. Use the first or last 5 minutes of schedule breaks to jot down your list. Lunch at conferences is often 90 minutes long, easily granting you 10 quiet minutes towards the end to review the sessions so far and write summaries.At the end of the day, before you go out to social events, take time to summarize each session if you didn’t during the day.
- Consider how to make good advice you heard actionable. In the abstract some ideas and tactics sound great, but may not apply to your situation (or to any real world project).
- Consider taking notes on paper. For creative topics there’s value to being able to hand draw diagrams or relationships between concepts. When you write with your hand your brain processes the information differently, and there’s even evidence you will remember written things better than if you typed them.
- Annotate links and references from the talk: URLs alone don’t help much as you won’t remember why you want to go to them. Make a thoughtful note you’ll understand a week or a month in the future for what problem that link or book will solve.
- Post your summary on your blog (& twitter with the conference hashtag) – Invite other people to compare their notes to yours. They’ll contribute things you missed and you’ll learn from how their summaries differ from yours. It’s ok if your notes are short: they will still be very useful to people who didn’t bother to take notes at all. Being social accelerates learning: we are conversational creatures and it’s in the discussion about a session that you’ll learn the deepest lessons. If no one is inviting you to start a conversation about what you heard, start it yourself. If you do this during the event it will even help you meet new people at the event (including speakers, who may respond to the questions in your notes about their session).
- Share a one page summary at work: a one page summary is more than enough to let coworkers know if they want to learn more about a session (in which case you can point them at the slides or the speaker’s website). One page is also enough to validate for your boss why it was worthwhile to pay for you to go (or perhaps to pay for you to go next time).
This is the best, simplest approach I’ve seen. Of course note taking is highly personal, but I hope this short guide will help you figure out what works best for you.