Meetings get everyone on the same page, but your own page might look a bit messy depending on how you take notes. And bringing notes you can’t even read to future meetings is no way to achieve team alignment or reach your goals. That’s where well-structured meeting notes can come in handy. Clear notes can be a thorough reminder of what you’ve previously discussed – and a roadmap to get you where you’re going. 

Jotting down key ideas during a meeting can feel distracting, especially if you aren’t a natural note-taker or you try to take notes word-for-word. How can you listen and take good notes at once? The below meeting note-taking methods have the answer.

What are meeting notes? 

Meeting notes are a record of only the most essential details of a meeting. They are not a transcript of everything that everyone said during the meeting – those are meeting minutes

Meeting notes are like the notes you’d take in school to help you remember what you’ve learned, except there’s no big test at the end. Instead, note-taking is more like a project management tool that can help you stay organized and stick to a productive workflow. Additionally, there’s no one way to take notes – your team members can take notes however they please. Typically, though, their notes will make more sense if they use a common meeting note-taking method.

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5 meeting note-taking methods

There are several ways to take good meeting notes, and the five most common methods are below. That said, don’t be afraid to branch out from this list and find the method that works best for you. 

1Cornell method

The Cornell method is the work of Cornell University professor Walter Pauk, who came up with it in the 1950s. It involves separating your page into three parts: one small column on the left, a bigger column on the right, and a small bottom section. In the small column, you’ll note your meeting’s key points. You’ll then use the larger space on the right to get into each of these key points’ deeper ideas. Afterward, you’ll use the bottom portion to summarize the whole meeting. 

2Outline method

The outline method is a note-taking technique that’s been around for about as long as the Cornell method. It’s one of the most popular note-taking methods because it naturally builds connections between everything in your notes. You’ll break the main topics into subtopics, and you’ll further break these subtopics into supporting details. Pro tip: Set each topic on your meeting agenda as a main topic in your outline to organize your notes exceptionally well.

3Quadrant method

The quadrant method visually separates different types of notes. It’s not quite like the previous two meeting note-taking methods, which separate information by topic. Here, you’ll divide your page into four sections (“quadrants”), and you’ll label each one based on the type of information you’ll write there. For example, in a team meeting, your quadrants might be labeled “action items for self,” “action items for team,” “questions,” and “key information.” 

4Slide method

The slide method of note-taking is probably the most straightforward, but you can only use it if there’s a presentation guiding your meeting. If your whole team can download and print the presentation, they can write notes right on the slides. This meeting note-taking method is the most convenient – the structure is already there – so everyone can focus well on the presentation while still recording information. 

5Mind-mapping

A mind map is basically a bunch of graphics that stand in for ideas and concepts. To create a mind map, you’ll figure out the central theme of your meeting and jot it down in the center of your page. You’ll then branch out from that to create subtopics – which can also branch out further. The final product will look kind of like a flowchart and kind of like the weird pathways of your brain.

Mind-mapping is unlike other note-taking methods in that it’s all about making new connections between key points to inspire your creativity. That’s a level beyond just writing things down as they happen in your meetings. It can also make you think a mind map can’t help you retain information, but that’s not quite true. If anything, your mind map gives you the background you need for the best possible future brainstorming meetings.

Why should you be taking meeting notes?

Not everyone’s a big-time note-taker, and not everyone needs notes. Some people do just fine remembering things from a meeting if they were actively listening. However, some people will try to do the same and come up totally blank. Better safe than sorry on that front – and good meeting notes are the solution. Here are three key reasons to take meeting notes. 

Keep a record of all your decisions 

All the decisions you make at your team meetings affect your projects, team, and the end product. Meeting notes can clearly list these decisions and help you and your colleagues avoid any confusion. A well-structured set of notes can also keep employees accountable and up-to-date on tasks and project milestones.

Remember everything more clearly

Notes are more than just records – science has also shown that they’re also a major memory-booster. Studies that German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted in 1895 showed that we often quickly forget anything we don’t actively try to retain. In more everyday language, Ebbinghaus basically proved with science that you’re more likely to remember your meetings’ most important details if you take notes. 

Get people who missed the meeting up to speed

100% attendance for every team meeting isn’t guaranteed – that’s just the nature of work and life. With effective meeting notes, any absences barely matter. Anyone who missed the meeting can just review the notes to get up to speed. That means they can get back to work while staying on the same page as everyone else. The result is a more productive team – even if not everyone could make your meeting.

Tips on how to take meeting notes

The five note-taking methods explained here can show you how to structure your notes. But when you sit down to use one for your first time, you might find it tricky at first. That’s understandable – who gets anything right the first time? But you can at least get closer to correct with the below tips on how to take meeting notes

1Start your notes before the meeting

A lot of note-taking methods involve dividing up your paper in a certain way. Whether that means dividing your paper into sections or creating labels for each agenda item, you should get all set up beforehand. You don’t want to start formatting your notes in the middle of a meeting – that’s how you miss important information. Coming prepared means you’re ready to jot down the key details while still being active and present in the meeting. 

2Don’t write word-for-word notes

Unless you’re writing meeting minutes, you don’t need to write down every word that people say at your meetings – or even most words. (And if you are writing meeting minutes, several meeting minutes tools can also mean you don’t have to write things down word-for-word.) The point is to jot down key information – you can summarize the big ideas in just a few words. 

Think about what might happen if you try to write a lot instead of keeping things brief. Chances are you won’t get everything on the page before the conversation moves on to the next topic. That’ll leave you struggling to remember what happened just now, which can also make it tough to understand the next topic. During any meeting – especially if you’re writing notes by hand – shorthand is your friend. Use symbols, abbreviations, and acronyms, and include a legend so you know what your shorthand means. 

3Think tomorrow, not today

Meeting notes should be a resource you can look back on in the future. They should make key meeting ideas and action items clear to guide your future action. They should also be entirely in your own words so that you’re looking back on how you understand things, not how someone else said them. And take them during the meeting, not afterward. What you remember about the meeting once it’s over might not be what you actually experienced in the moment.

4Sum it up ASAP

You’re best off writing your notes during the meeting, not afterward, but there is one important thing to do once the meeting ends. You should quickly summarize the main points while they’re still fresh in your mind. This summary can refresh your memory when you’re reading your notes long after the meeting. 

Your notes should build upon your summary and add context. Try to aim for a short paragraph, unless you’re taking notes for an initial client meeting. Your summary might need to be a few paragraphs long to cover each and every point you and the client discussed. This way, you start the relationship off on entirely the right foot.

5Use a template 

If you’d rather focus on the notes themselves and not the page’s structure, then a meeting notes template can be your best friend. You can certainly find templates for all the above note-taking methods and many more – no more time spent setting up the page. Plus, a template means that all your notes will have the same format, so over time, they’ll get easier to understand. 

Noting success

Note-taking is great for anyone and everyone, and you can take notes in whatever way works for you. That said, you might want to choose a meeting note-taking method that will help others clearly understand your notes. You might need to share them with someone to get the whole team working from the same set of ideas, tasks, and goals. 

Fellow can help your team reach new heights with its collaborative note-taking tools. With Fellow, you can easily create and share notes, record action items, and ensure that your team starts – and stays – on the same page. And in this case, that’s true literally and figuratively.