#047: The Lost Art of Note-Taking [Podcast]

I don’t recall anyone ever teaching me how to take notes. I didn’t learn it in school—not even college. Nor did I learn it on the job. It was something I had to pick up on my own.


Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/shironosov

Maybe this is why so few people bother to take notes during meetings or presentations. No one has ever told them why it is important or how to do it. In this episode, I do both.

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So let’s start with why. Why is note-taking important? Here are five reasons you should take notes in every meeting your attend:

  1. Note-taking enables you to stay engaged.
  2. Note-taking provides a mechanism for capturing ideas, insights and questions.
  3. Note-taking helps you track assignments–yours and others.
  4. Note-taking provides a handy reference weeks and months later.
  5. Note-taking communicates the right things to the other attendees.

So, those are some reasons why note-taking is important. How, then, can you take better notes?

  1. Don’t get hung up on the tool.
  2. Record whatever you find interesting.
  3. Give your notes structure, even if the meeting or presenter is unstructured.
  4. Use symbols so you can quickly scan your notes later.
  5. Schedule time to review your notes.

The method you use is secondary to the importance of doing it. Feel free to experiment. The key thing is to be intentional.

Listener Questions

  1. Brandon Jones asked, “How can you effectively take notes and still be an active participant in the meeting?”
  2. Cary Branscum asked, “What is the one favorite pen or pencil you have that you most enjoy using?”
  3. Deborah Owen asked, “How can we teach students to take notes in a way that will ultimately be useful in the workplace?”
  4. Erick Rheam asked, “How do you capture ideas and follow-up items on podcasts and audiobooks?”
  5. Jared Easley asked, “What’s your advice on taking mental notes, when you don’t have a pen and taking notes on a cell phone is inappropriate?”
  6. Jeremy Jones asked, “Do you have a regular process or system for making sure the notes you take get into your life?”
  7. John Brubaker asked, “How do you get buy-in from people who work for you to become note-takers themselves without forcing it on them?”
  8. Jordan Collier asked, “Can you recommend a system for reviewing or reflecting on your notes?”
  9. Paula Gibson asked, “How can we encourage students, who are using digital devices, to take notes?”
  10. Scott McFaddin asked, “How can we use digital devices in a corporate setting without making people wonder if we are taking notes or doing something else?”
  11. Tom McFarland asked, “What do you do with your notes after you finish processing them?”
  12.  Victor H. Manzanilla asked, “How do you create a notes archive that is indexed and searchable?”

Special Announcements

  1. I am speaking at Dan Miller’s Innovate Conference on Friday, March 29th, here in Franklin, TN. I am speaking on the topic of “Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World” with special emphasis on finding your voice.

    Next week, April 2nd, I will be speaking at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusettes. It’s about a half hour north of Boston. I will be speaking on the topic of “Platform.” Previous speakers have included John C. Maxwell and Sir Ken Robinson.

    Finally, on April 26th, I will be speaking at the CEO Summit in Frisco, TX on the topic of “Platform.” I’ll be there with my friends Bob Goff and Francis Chan.

  2. Platform University continues to thrive! This week, I hosted our monthly Q&A call. Our members submitted hundreds of questions. My staff went through and collected the most often asked ones, and then we took several calls live.
  3. My next podcast will be on the topic of “The 5 Characteristics of Weak Leaders.” I’ll talk about how not to be that guy and what to do if you work for that guy.

    If you have a question on this subject, please leave me a voicemail message. This is a terrific way to cross-promote YOUR blog or website, because I will link to it, just like I did with the callers in this episode.

Episode Resources

In this episode I mentioned several resources, including:

Show Transcript

You can download a complete, word-for-word transcript of this episode here, courtesy of Ginger Schell, a professional transcriptionist, who handles all my transcription needs.

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Question: What have you found helpful in taking notes? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Ross Bale

    Very much enjoyed this podcast as someone who has recently purchased an iPad and was looking into how I could incorporate this device into note taking in meetings.

    There was a question about capure on the go that I thought I would share my experience with. I listen to podcasts regularly while driving and have the facility to make calls via Bluetooth on my smartphone, so when I need to make a note of something that I heard in a podcast I simply dial my own mobile number from the car steering wheel and leave myself a voicemail.

    The car kit automatically pauses the iPod so I don’t miss any content, just thought this might help someone.

  • http://twitter.com/Joshua_Chalmers Josh Chalmers

    For everyone who is trying to figure out how to take notes while walking, cycling, driving, etc.

    If you use an iPhone you should get some bluetooth headphones that have a pause/play button on them, and the ability to initiate a call without taking the phone out of your pocket. This way you can use the Siri method that several people have mentioned just by touching your headphones. If you don’t have Siri, I recommend an app for iPhones/iPod touches called: Ambling Pro, because it records your listening history and can speed up your audio (http://joshchalmers.wordpress.com/2012/10/10/listen-to-audio-at-a-faster-pace-with-your-iphone/). So all I do is pause and resume, then when I return from my walk I can just check the listening history to find the spot I want (this is great because I can do it while walking two large dogs). The pair I recommend are the Plantronics Backbeat 903+, they are cheap on Ebay and are reviewed here: http://joshchalmers.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/why-god-didnt-give-us-earlids/.

    PS – Does anyone else appreciate listening at a higher speed? I love speeding up the audio to two or three times the pace so that I can make the most of my listening space. The blog above gives some apps that make this possible.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I listen at 2x speed on both Audible.com (audio books) and Downcast (podcasts). Thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/Joshua_Chalmers Josh Chalmers

    Here is a tip for everyone who likes to record notes and have them transcribed in Evernote. One commenter mentioned an app called “Say it and mail it”, which looks great, but if you want an option that uses the native Evernote audio recording feature an alternative is called Voice2Note, which will automatically transcribe the audio notes you create in Evernote. You can do five a month for free and they only transcribe the first 30 seconds, unless of course you want more messages which you will have to pay for.

    Check it out here: http://voice2note.dial2do.com/

  • http://twitter.com/bonniebrannigan bonniebrannigan

    Michael, this was the first Michael Hyatt podcast I’ve heard. Good stuff. I have found Evernote to be an invaluable tool for web clipping and some note taking. One suggestion for your listeners: When attending a recent conference, I used my iPad to take written notes, audio “notes” and took photos of important slides on the screen. Multimedia capture of the presentation.

  • http://twitter.com/ericstetler Eric Stetler

    Loved this podcast! After hearing it, I tweaked my GTD system to incorporate Evernote with Outlook. Using “quick steps” in Outlook, each email is forwarded, tagged, and filed in Evernote for anywhere reference and action! Thanks for all you do. http://www.sustainablewellness.wordpress.com

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  • http://twitter.com/romanalilic Romana Lilic

    Hola from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. I just wanted to add my contribution on how I ‘take’ notes when I’m on the go. For example, I often listen to podcasts when I walk my dog – we often walk for 45 mins – 1 hour, which is just a perfect timing to hear the entire podcast. When I hear a comment or note or a thing that I want to save to explore later, I open my Evernote and record a voice message. That way I am sure I have it saved until I am able to sit at my desk and do further research.


  • http://twitter.com/thomastonkin Thomas Tonkin

    Another great Podcast! I appears that i may be a regular of yours. I am a Levenger user myself, specifically, the Circa Notebooks system http://www.levenger.com/Circa-Notebooks-326/Circa-Notebooks-339.aspx. In addition, I collect note taking tips and teach (in our company) a style of note taking that was actually born from formal ‘whiteboarding’. A little more tedious, but very effective for later reuse (I scan these notes using Neat) as well as to better understand the topic (note taking that helps you learn). Again, excellent podcast and great information. Thank you.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Thomas. I don’t use a Levenger notebook, but they make outstanding products. Thanks for commenting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/TheGateBearers Marcus Russell

    “Expository Listening” is a fantastic book worth checking out!

    • Henry Cooper

      where can I find that book or the title of it?

  • Tim

    Thanks for the tips. Before retiring, I was always a old fashioned pen and paper note taker, but was careful to have a system of being able to go back and find any note I had recorded (I used the method learned at a Daytimer conference). One of the things that used to drive me crazy was seeing people taking notes on a notepad or a scrap of paper and wondering, “What are you going to do with that piece of paper when you get back to your office?” Taking notes is pointless if you can’t find the note later. Thanks again for the ideas in this podcast.

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  • Jim Harmon

    I note take throughout my day and I have found the Momonote app to be indispensable. It allows me to have many different journals which are all searchable and accessible for free on the web. One of my journals is titled “what I have learned”. While driving I typically listen to podcasts, yours included, and I use the voice to text feature of the app, with a set of headphones on, to record all of the significant things I learn.

  • Henry Cooper

    Truly good pointers and reminders on this, thanks Mike!

  • Henry Cooper

    Also that I do and create tutorials for people dealing with ways to connect/re-connect with people (old and new), how to save all your people’s contacts from your notes straight to digital, always have a backup, list of sources/resources, etc.

    I think for me those I did and share with people plus friends are very helpful and life-changing. Anyone’s who is interested on most of my tutorials and stuff, feel free to leave me an email @ theultimatecooper (at) gmail (dot) com and/or henry_cooper10 (at) yahoo (dot) com, thru my Youtube page under “imthebrother” or “Henry Cooper” I guarantee you’ll never be disappointed or dissatisfied.

  • Dan Morrow

    Listening to the podcast now and just heard a question about note taking when listening to podcasts and audiobooks while on the move. Someone else may have mentioned this (I have not been able to go through all the comments yet), but here’s my solution. I use a voice recorder. For instance, I go for walks most days and I like to listen to podcasts, audiobooks, lectures, etc. on my phone. Well, I’ve learned the hard way the importance of writing down thoughts and ideas as soon as I have them. If I wait even a minute I may lose it. I used to stop, change apps, and record a memo to myself. That got old fast, but I didn’t have a voice recorder and we don’t have the money to buy one. Then I remember that I had an old iPod Nano that has a voice recording function. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a microphone. Fortunately, I remembered an old external mic I got years ago for a camera. It’s tiny and now lives on the Nano.

    So, while it’s a little makeshift, I now toss my tiny Nano in my pocket, strap my iPhone to my arm and head out on my walks fully equipped. When I have a thought I know I need to write down, or when I get an idea for a new book or project (I always seem to get those in bed, in the shower, or when I’m on the move), I pause my material, pull out my Nano, record my note, and move on. When I get home I will plug in my Nano, label my recordings, and drag them into a relevant file folder.

    Of course, if you own or can afford a better quality voice recorder, fair enough. There are some great ones out there. Whatever the case, I find that I would be lost and frustrated without the ability to quickly record my thoughts and ideas while on the move and a voice recorder solves this problem for me. You may even choose to use an app to make your quick recordings, such as Evernote or DropVox (which is an iPhone app that uploads directly to Dropbox) or another that may suit your workflow.

  • Haelie

    I have been a note-taker for quite some time. I especially began taking copious notes in nursing school – I would have never passed otherwise. In the past few years of my career, now that I am no longer at the bedside and am in a role in which I attend countless meetings, I have begun taking notes again. When I attended meetings early on and did not take notes, I could not keep track of what was discussed nor any important take-aways or action items.

    I learned by watching many leaders in these meetings as they took notes in various notebooks and/or on their laptops. I now take notes, sometimes copious, but with indented and bulleted formats that help me as I look back over them.

    Most recently, I have begun using a LiveScribe SmartPen. I must say I LOVE IT! I don’t know how I survived without it for so long…especially in nursing school. I personally retain and process best by handwriting as I listen or study (which is why I have begun doing what I & others call #writetheWord when studying my Bible – I post pics of this on Instagram & FB). Anyway, all of that said, the LiveScribe works very well for a person like me who still hand-writes notes. I highly recommend it!

  • Nick MacDonald

    In response to Eric’s question about how to remember things while listening while running. If you are listening on an iPhone and probably most other smartphones. Start your stopwatch when you start the audio and hit the lap button to mark the times you want to go back to. Then go back through the audio with the times you have marked. It will make it easier to find the 2 or 3 parts you want in the hour long session etc.

  • http://www.ConnXN.net Peter M. Beaumont

    Great piece. David Allen has talked on this and I also blogged on this subject sometime ago (http://connxn.net/meetings/why-meeting-notes-make-sense/). Recently I came across a great App I use on my iPad for capturing notes. Called ‘Meetings-Notebooks for Work-Meeting Notes, Agenda, and Minutes’. Although not perfect it makes it easy to capture notes, send out Agenda points prior to meetings and create Tasks. The best feature is that on completing the Notes, you can forward the notes as an e-mail and it will also attach a txt and pdf version automatically. You also have the option to send to Dropbox. It has increased my productivity substantially and makes doing Notes pleasurable and easy.

  • James Heinritz

    The founder of Nozbe has a good system for recording notes while listening to podcasts and audio books:

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for pointing us to that. I love the step-by-step.

  • James Heinritz

    Do you sync your Cabinet folder to any of your computers? Or do you work exclusively in the cloud? By having only one folder, its size must be huge, and it’s no longer possible to selectively sync offline folders with small memory devices.

  • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

    Yes, I have it on my iPhone and my iPad. It’s actually not that huge. It’s only 71 MB.

  • Dr Joachim Schlosser

    On your (respectively Jared’s) puzzle about how to take a note while listening to a podcast on the run/in your car/working out: I use Apple Siri’s reminder feature.
    Hold the play/pause button on my earplugs and say ”remind me on “. Works like a charm, I get it right into my productivity system for later processing.
    Sometimes it is also a source of joy when Siri misunderstands what I said. Reading out loud its transcript then helps.