Experts Take Notes.

Recently, Mark Zuckerberg addressed a large auditorium of young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. He shared lessons from his journey and his perspective on the state of the internet industry. Every seat was taken, and the 20-somethings who aspired to entrepreneurial greatness were listening with rapt attention.

According to my friend who relayed this story, there were two older folks in the front row who stood out: John Doerr and Ron Conway. They are both legendary investors in Silicon Valley.

They stood out not just because their gray hair shimmered in the sea of youth around them, but because they were the only people in the audience taking notes.

Isn’t it funny, my friend told me, that arguably the two most successful people in the room after Zuckerberg were also the only two people taking notes?

As I wrote in the excerpts from the Five Elements of Effective Thinking, experts understand simple things deeply. They return to the basics, over and over again. eBay CEO John Donahoe is widely regarded as one of the premier execs in the Valley right now and I’m told is an avid note-taker to boot. He recently said on LinkedIn, “Great leaders are never too proud to learn.”

You could argue people have different approaches to capturing nuggets of wisdom and committing those nuggets to memory. Sure. But I’m skeptical of passive learning. If you don’t write down what you’re hearing and learning, what the odds you remember it? I take lots of notes in paper mole skin notebooks; every week or so I go back with a different color pen and circle the key sentences; I then transfer these ideas to Evernote files on my computer; and finally, I blog/tweet/publish/email out the crispest, most important ideas or quotes. And this is nothing compared to Tim Ferriss’s extreme “take notes like an alpha geek” system, which is worth learning about.

You might argue people like John Doerr and Ron Conway are old school. Most young folks today, you’d say, aren’t going to be using pen and paper in the first place. Fine. The actual technology/process is not as important as having a repository, and preferably having a system that reinforces retention.

I thought about this broader idea the other month when I visited the University of Washington business school the other month. I was giving the keynote talk in the afternoon, but I set my alarm clock early to catch the morning keynote from my friend Charlie Songhurst. I know from personal experiences that Charlie is unusually insightful. As he delivered his keynote to the MBAs in the audience I noticed something peculiar: almost no one was taking notes–on paper or on tablet or computer. Well, I was. A few other people were. But most weren’t. There was plenty to write down, to be sure. It was an insightful talk. What gives? My theory: The audience was mostly students. Experts — or those who have deconstructed what experts do — take notes. Novices don’t see the point.


There’s an old rule of thumb that if you have something really important you need done, ask for help from the busiest person you know. Here’s an analogous rule: if you want to identify the most senior, knowledgeable people in an audience, look for the people who are taking notes and asking questions.


While taking notes in a large auditorium in front a keynote speaker is a no brainer, note-taking in a 1:1 meeting is a bit trickier. A few years ago, I wrote about the pros and cons of taking notes in a 1:1 conversation. One risk is it can make the conversation seem more transactional than is ideal. And it can also introduce a power dynamic if only one person (and not the other) is taking notes. Still bias yourself to take notes in a 1:1, but tread a bit more cautiously.

(Photo credit: Geekcalendar)

(This post originally appeared on LinkedIn)

20 comments on “Experts Take Notes.
  • I think the process can be more important when you know the meeting is being recorded.

    I have found the process of note taking in meetings prioritizes what’s important. To summarize you must understand. Therefore, at the end of a wandering, convoluted meeting, my notes have siphoned out the important parts and made sense of the whole.

    If the meeting info is really that important, then just hire someone to take exhaustive notes.

    BTW- I purchased “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking” based on your review. Great book – thanks!

  • Such great advice Ben!

    There is no substitute to putting pen to paper (I carry my moleskine everywhere!).

    Besides the lessons gleaned from the speaker, I find that in situations like you described, other thoughts come to life while I am taking notes (some related to the topic being discussed and some not). Being willing to enter this “note taking” mode is where some of the best ideas are born.


  • You shared a very valuable input Ben!

    My Boss is someone who swears by the pen and paper mechanism. I can never thank him enough for always being sarcastic when none of us used to take notes. His sarcasm and frequent “I told you that you should have taken notes”, finally made me now follow this beautiful habit of taking notes and guess what…..It works wonders!!!!


  • I have discovered the procedure of getting notices in conferences prioritizes what exactly is essential. To review you must comprehend.Besides the training learned from the presenter, I find that in circumstances like you described, other ideas come to life while I am getting notes

    • What a great description Michael – Listening through your fingers! Love that!

      I am a note-taker and was talking with someone the other day about our shared complusion to take copious notes. We agreed that it is definitely an aid to thinking, internalising and brainstorming new connections as we are listening to someone else speak.

      Great article.

  • My father told me how to study: Eyes, mouth, ears, hands! Read the book loud and take notes. Use all channels – then you get the text repeated in one operation. See it with your eyes, tell it with your mouth, listen to it with your ears and write it with your hand. So all my homework I read loudly and took notes! It really works!

  • The smart folks at Field Notes Brand have a token tagline I love: “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” — Seems pertinent…

  • I used to be an Organizer and we did these things called 1:1’s, which were strategic conversations where you tried to discern what made people tick, what they really wanted for their communities.

    We were taught not to take notes during the conversation but to find a quiet place as soon as possible, even if it was your car, and write down everything you could remember. It’s a pretty good substitute for taking notes during the conversation. If you try to remember right away, you can capture a lot of it.

  • This is how I got through college. I went full time and still held down a 30+ hour a week job. Just show up to class and take copious notes. I was the guy that didn’t need to cram like crazy since I had absorbed all the info during the semester.

    And now I tell every junior in my office to leave grab a pen and paper any time he stands up from his desk. If somebody walks into my office without a way to take notes, I send him away.

    Taking notes keeps you focused and doesn’t force you to rely on s spotty distracted memory.

  • Another good thing about pen and paper for note taking is that your speaker knows it, if you note take on electronic devices, you may mistakenly appear to be reading email/ surfing and not paying attention.

    • Eric,
      Pen and paper definitely makes it very self-evident about what you are doing, and signals to the other person that you are paying attention, not playing around. The challenge I have with pen and paper is then needing to type up what I wrote down, and the fewer details I have available after the session – since I can type much faster than I can write. How have you dealt with this issue?

      • Agreed, many of us can type faster than writing … also then saves the step of typing it in … Also, search functions are really the trump card as far as electronic vs. analog, when later you want to find what you wrote down, electronic searches are amazing … I guess it really depends on the venue and group size… and what others are in the room doing.. and whethere it is a roundtable or classroom set up … Did you see Bill Gates on 60 Minutes this past Sunday – He showed the notes he takes and they were detailed!
        Best- Eric

  • Ben, excellent teaching a lesson we all should learn. I identify with many, inspired most by Arne’s comments. You changed me way of work! I will take better notes. As I read your beautifully expressed article and read the replies, I was thinking the whole time – taking notes
    shows the person you are meeting with “you and what you say is important enough, that I want
    to write it down, so I can followup or respond properly to what we are discussing. THANK YOU
    for this valuable help.

  • I am definitely a note taker… and i try and read my notes straight after the event to make sure i’ve captured what i want to clearly because often it’s rushed and in a shorthand that i may not remember at a later date… I even encourage my son (6 year old) to write in a journal most nights and write at least one thing that happened in the day… I do this because if i ask him what he did in the day he never remembers but if he has to write it down he thinks back… and what a fantastic account to have in 20+ years time for him (and me).

  • This resonated with me strongly. I work in an environment where notetaking is not encouraged. However, I take copious notes and find that I get the usual benefits: better recall and the document to review later if I have forgotten somthing. It is encouraging to see that others feel as strongly about notetaking as I do. Thanks so much!

  • I once heard a story from my former coach who had coached Jerry Rice at the 49ers.

    Every training camp the simplest, most basic plays were installed on day 1 and got progressively more complicated and complex from there. According to my coach, Jerry Rice was not only a detailed note taker, but he was just as detailed and obsessive about his notes for the most basic of plays as he was for the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. Even when the topic was something basic like where to line up or where to go in the huddle, he was always paying attention and taking copious notes.

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