Should You Take Notes in a One-on-One Meeting?

Recently I met with some young, green entrepreneurs to discuss their business idea. I gave them a bunch of feedback at the end of the meeting. They nodded hungrily and said they appreciated it.

One problem. Neither took a single note during the meeting. As I read off a list of 6 or 7 specific things I had written down in my notebook, they nodded but did nothing else.

I’m a notebook-and-pen kind of guy. I try to carry a notebook around with me everywhere because I never know when a good idea will strike me, or when someone will tell me something I want to remember. In meetings, I not only take notes to remember things — I’ll trust paper notes over someone’s memory any day of the week — but also to signal respect to the person talking. I want to show that I value their ideas.

I apply this value the other way, too. That is, if I give someone specific, responsive feedback over several points, I appreciate it when he writes it down because it shows he’s taking my time / ideas seriously.

Here’s the catch: sometimes there’s rationale not to scribble notes in a meeting. If you’re trying to build a personal relationship with someone, or are out with a friend, sometimes taking notes can make the interaction seem too transactional. Also, if you are taking notes but your partner is not, a subtle power dynamic can emerge (ie, the person taking notes is less than the person not taking notes).

In the end, it’s a personal choice. I take notes all the time, regardless of situation. There’s no worse feeling than trying to remember that golden nugget of wisdom that you didn’t write down. I also try to signal that I value my partner’s time. But I can appreciate the perspective that in certain non-professional interactions taking notes can be weird and maybe counterproductive in the long-run.

One logistical note: sometimes a “notebook and pen” can be digital — ie, your PDA. I use my T-Mobile Dash to write down blog posts, quotes, etc. that come to mind during the day, and then transfer to my computer at the end of the day.

Here’s Tim Ferriss on “how to take notes like an alpha geek.” To me, this is over-optimizing the organization part of it (which is a central problem I have with many productivity hacks — over-optimization), but it’s worth a read to see different people’s systems.

17 comments on “Should You Take Notes in a One-on-One Meeting?
  • I know that it’s to my detriment, but I just can’t take notes. Some time during junior year of college, I just said screw it, I’m done with notes. I focused on paying attention and listening instead. It worked for me. I have a very good memory, and I justify my decision by saying that if I don’t remember something, it’s not worth remembering.

    I know that I’m deluded, but I refuse to change.

    I never minded tests in school, it was just the fast, furious writing that bothered me. My wrist would hurt, and my handwriting was illegible. I don’t think that handwriting is something worth working on after 4th grade.

  • Ok, question – with a reference back to the mentor/mentee discussion – would you bring a notebook if you’re meeting w/ a mentor? In my mind, it depends. On the one hand, you’re trying to create a trusted relationship outside of the “help me” transaction. On the other hand, I do value my mentor’s time, experience and hacks…thus putting them to paper would seem productive and respectful. Whenever I’m in the position to mentor someone, I always bring at least 1 index card w/ 3-5 points I’d like to cover. Why? Because sometimes the mentees needs a little time to simmer before they get comfortable enough to ask questions. Thus, as a mentee, I’ve trained myself to bring at least 1 index card w/ a few questions. I try not to whip it out unless the situation or discussion warrants it.

    So how about it? During mentoring sessions, to notebook or not to notebook?

  • Notebook.

    In a mentor relationship there’s a clear power dynamic and you not only want to remember what is said, but you want to show due respect for his/her wisdom.

  • Great tip Ben. This actually came up for me today when I was talking with a ‘potential customer’ for my new business (who is also a personal friend).

    I was sharing my business concept and he was giving feedback. The entire time I really wanted to break out a pen and paper but hessitated for a while because I didn’t want our discussion to feel odd.

    After 15 minutes though I couldn’t stand it anymore and pulled out my iphone to take notes. If the dynamic between the two individuals seems ‘off’, a simple question can go a long way. I asked my friend: “you don’t mind if I take notes do you?”

    I then used those notes to write a thank you note to him for his time and counsel.

    One other tid bit. One of my mentors always says: “writing is thinking.” Writing notes helps you synthesize what you are hearing.

  • Whenever someone takes the time to speak on an important situation and I take the time to listen to that wisdom, I make sure that I take notes.
    I feel that it ensures not only that you pay attention, but that you can always look back and read them later. Whatever the situation, be it a speaking engagement or a mentor/mentee get-together, a second look at what took place is, as I’ve found, nearly always more helpful.
    I can be so willing and intent on the speaker, that I found if I do not take notes, I forget half of what they said.
    This may seem dorky, but when Ben was at my college yesterday, I took notes the entire time. I valued what he had to say even if I don’t wish to start my own company. His experience and desire to share his knowledge was an invaluable situation.
    It was also helpful to look back to when writing my paper on the event.
    I really enjoyed the event, and hope to get the chance to hear him speak again.

  • In my experience, the power dynamic does not matter. Taking notes is better than relying on later, often faulty recollections of what transpired. It also signals other things such as responsibility and a method of being organised.

    For the Prince’s Trust in the UK, I mentored a young woman entrepreneur. Whenever we met, I took notes but she did not. As a result, after some meetings, I knew more about her business plans and prospects than she did. At this point, I nudged her to start taking notes. And she listened.

    Now I serve as the trustee of a non-profit foundation related to arts and culture. The co-founders are executive directors and highly creative, but not the notes-taking type, people. In our meetings and discussions – you guessed it – *I* take notes. There is no raising the question of the power balance here. But I also happen to have fiduciary responsibilities and the act of note-taking signals that I am taking my job seriously and they should, too.

    That said, in academic contexts, taking notes seems more of an event in social sciences than in the sciences. I rarely took notes during my engineering classes, making occasional scribbles on my notebook when I had questions but not otherwise. But attending classes while studying science policy and then pre-doctoral philosophy and methodology classes, I took copious notes as did everyone else around me.

    JP Adams also has a great point about how we process information as we write.

    Finally, on preparedness, I am often caught without cash – plastic rules for me – but never without a notebook with blank pages and a working pen (which I never lend).

    Good post.

  • I was a terrible note taker when I was younger, a bit better now. I’ve found they’re most useful when their actionable in the GTD sense of the word. I rarely re-read notes (partly because I have terrible handwriting), but I always put them in my inbox and, if there’s a checkbox next to items in my notes, they funnel into my to-do list.

  • If it’s a mass gathering with one speaker addressing an audience, it’s ok to take notes. But you tend to lose context because you are recording an earlier remark while listening to the next. The speaker is always ahead of you and that serialized asymmetry could rob you from establishing instant connect with the context. You also deprive yourself of the scope for passive animation of any related misgivings deeply lodged in your memory that could’ve gotten cleared by the instant connection. You go there to get enlightened, but you end up merely archiving it. In effect, you mentally gatecrash after the speech is over.

    In interactive discussions, taking notes could rile the speaker especially if the setting is 1-1. While the mentor expects you to listen, digest it mentally and instantly react, your taking notes could give it a mechanical ring and alter an engaging session into a rhetorical one.

    It could also slacken his train of thought because seeing you taking notes, he may sub-consciously pace down his rhythm to let you catch up. It makes him conscious, sometimes rooting him out of context itself. Often many speakers anticipate an intelligent nod or a smile of appreciation that stimulates them to go on; yet you rudely deny it by keeping your head down.

    Take notes by all means. Immediately after the session or during a break while the paint is still fresh and wet. That way you get rid of the rote element that make it seem one sided. You also get to complete the picture with not just what he had to say, but blend in your own thoughts and passive reflections as well, that could leave you a lot enriched post event.

  • I used to be a rabid note-taker. But I found that I seldom referred back to the copious notes I was taking.

    So, time for a behavior change. These days, I focus on what the person is saying, and then, later on, I’ll write down the most important points.

    I’ve found that sharing what I’ve learned, verbally or in writing, is useful in helping me remember what I’ve heard.

  • I’m with ya Ben, I’m a note taker. I prefer to view note taking as engagement – it’s a form of listening and participating in the conversation. I don’t care so much about the power struggle as I feel my work should speak for itself.

    One thing I definitely try to stay away from is taking notes on a laptop. That screen gets in the way of eye contact, so whenever possible I opt for handwritten notes (Moleskine journal).

  • You hit one of my hot buttons. People who ask for advice and you give several specific ideas – and they do not take notes.
    Toppers is when they come up moments later (or follow up in writing later) to ask me to repeat what I said.

    One of my mentors years ago, Howard Raiffa, used to pleasantly excuse himself when someone who asked his advice did not take notes, then turn back and say something like, “tell me when you are ready.”

    Research done at U of Wisc. demonstrated that people remember roughly double the amount of info if they take notes – even if they do not refer to thse notes later.

  • Ben – I remember an image from a few years ago of a conversation taking place (at Doblin?). Two people at a table whose surface was a white board. The conversation was animated and participatory, each using the horizontal surface to sketch, diagram, make connections, clarify, develop.

    I’ve found that if I treat a piece of paper in front of me like a white board (imagine a graphic “mind-map”), the self-consciousness/weirdness of the activity, for both of us, tends to disappear. The person I am talking with many times becomes even more animated because the notes I am taking are not “quotes” to be careful of, but diagrams of idea connections.

    Thanks for the post! Nice considerations.

  • And a fine touch of etiquette is to ask permission of the speaker to take notes… a show of respect for both the speaker’s thoughts and the decorum of the gathering.

  • The other area where it can be useful to take notes is where you need to offload. I was at a jazz performance recently which I really didn’t like (jazz version of Message in a Bottle, I ask you) but couldn’t make my views known because it would have upset the boys who were trying so hard.
    So I could write down everything I thought in my little notebook, and just dump all of my negative thoughts. Of course if you do this in meetings you have to make sure your writing can’t be read, even upside down.

  • very good article Ben. Thanks for sharing it.
    I personally believe taking notes is the best thing to remember. My first task in 1st job was to take notes during meetings with our clients and CEO! He assigned this task to me because he says that he cannot remember all the things discussed in the meetings.
    People who says that they can remember each and every bit of something they are wrong. even science cannot prove it that human brain can remember everything. If someone saying that they can remember means that they are at the level a bit below their actual strength. For Example: a 6 year old kid can easily remember a table of 2 but for 4 year old kid its quite difficult.

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