Min / Max Note Taking for Conferences

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.


13 Responses to “Min / Max Note Taking for Conferences”

  1. Michael Gowin

    Excellent list, Scott. I’d also suggest that debriefing with a co-worker or friend each day as well as after the conference (“So what did you get out of the talk/session/workshop?”) is a good way to remember the valuable parts.

    1. Scott

      Good suggestion. Part of the last notion of reporting back to coworkers is in the same spirit. The problem is not going too far – I know of some places that require people to give a presentation to their staff about what they learned, but it’s preferable to let people choose to learn more, rather than forcing them to listen to a summary. Events and conferences are diffuse – the signal to noise ratio varies heavily from person to person, as does which elements are the signal and which are the noise.

  2. Sean Crawford

    By slide deck I guess you mean an after-conference download maintained by a conference web site.

    1. Scott

      Correct. Many events do this now, certainly in the business/tech domains.

  3. Steven Hoober

    > if the speaker does a good job they used the slides to support their talk,

    I see this comment a lot, and it’s true… but only strictly. Am I the only one who uses speaker notes? Cause if you download my deck you get some very slim slides (a photo with no caption, 3-4 words on a black background) but the notes are a complete narrative that flows through the whole deck. I probably didn’t say /that exactly/ as I talk to the audience, but I said something like it, so it’s not bad.

    If I didn’t do this, I’d have to go home and record a video of me doing each event afterwards, so people have something I can refer them to. I don’t want to only be helpful for the hour I am on stage.

    1. Scott

      Some speakers use notes, but I suspect it’s even rarer that people read them. Often slides gets passed around as PDFs, which usually strips out the speaker notes. And of course unless the slides themselves remind users to view the slides with them visible they might not even know they’re there.

      1. Steven Hoober

        Ah, so sad. I do try to share mine. So much so that I just (like 10 seconds ago) made shortened URLs for inclusion in some emails and printed materials. And, I make sure to promote when I have a good video of the presentation as well. I hate watching videos, but I know most do, plus it’s easy to have a cheap teambuilder lunch, so I share those (now with short URL!) also.

        And… I complain to conference organizers. When they do that whole system of gathering PPTs to load on some conference-specific site, I make sure they are sharing the full PPT, or if they insist on sharing a PDF I give them the notes version with small slides and my notes.

        I wonder if I need to start adding a slide after the title for the Slideshare uploads, at least, that say “see the video or download this to view the speaker notes.” That’s a good point.

  4. John

    Some similar principles to something else I read this week:


    “He was in his early teens, about to start senior school, when his grandfather took him aside and told him the following:

    ‘Immediately after every lecture, meeting, or any significant experience, take 30 seconds — no more, no less — to write down the most important points. If you always do just this, said his grandfather, and even if you only do this, with no other revision, you will be okay.'”

  5. Joe McCarthy

    Great suggestions on how to capture & share highlights from conferences!

    Items 5 & 6 remind me of Stephen Covey’s notion of “third person teaching” – when you learn something with the intention of teaching it to someone else, you learn it much better … this, I suppose, is also behind the adage “the best way to learn something is to teach it”.

    I’ve regularly posted notes from conferences and workshops for several years now, even for conferences I don’t physically attend, such as the Web 2.0 Expo in 2009 where you were speaking, and on which you and other speakers shared some additional insights and experiences in the comments sections. I learned a great deal more about the event – and many issues that arose during the event (and other events) – from making my notes from afar public.

    BTW, on the topic of discovering unanticipated insights through comments, I’m wondering if one of your plugins is malfunctioning. The header of the comments section here (and elsewhere) reads: “NO RESPONSES TO “MIN / MAX NOTE TAKING FOR CONFERENCES”. I’m viewing this in Chrome.

  6. Gaz

    Nice tips Scott.

    Two points from me on this subject:

    I tend to only use pictures if I have to present slides of some sort. Have sat through too many presentations with slides full of words that nobody remembers.

    I will try and grab a few points from each speech or presentation I attend and publish out to my associates. They wont bother looking through a slide deck but will read a short concise list of points. Make the info interesting enough and the team will come looking for more on that particular subject.




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