How To Take Good Notes

Taking notes during a lecture, meeting, or reading assignment means more than jotting down a few key ideas unless you have an exceptional memory.

Listening to a conference speaker outline key points related to job performance, you begin furiously writing down sentence after sentence, using abbreviations to capture each statement. After a minute or so, you realize you'll never catch up. How are you supposed to capture the essence of the presentation for future reference?

The art of note-taking means that you do just that: you capture the "essence" of a speaker's remarks rather than try and recount the entire event. But how do you boil it down to basics? Here are some tips that may help:

1. Look for the main idea of the presentation. The title, the speaker's credentials, and the program outline may provide an overview of the main ideas. Of course it will be impossible to record everything the speaker says unless you plan to use a tape recorder. Instead, plan to jot down a few ideas beside each main point. Some speakers provide PowerPoint handouts or an outline with headings and subheadings. Use these for adding your own ideas.

2. Link main ideas together. As you note patterns that emerge from the presentation, like numbered points between one and five, for example, take notes about these linkages and what they suggest about the overall thesis, or main point. If your handout does not list subpoints, add some of your own, and write a brief explanation for each. In this manner a consistent thread of related meaning can be traced through the entire event.

3. Jot down key words and phrases rather than complete sentences. If you quote the speaker's comments randomly, use double quotation marks around them to show they were his or her precise words. If time permits, you may want to write a few sentences of summary after each section or following the presentation to help you recall the theme or main idea later.

4. Organize your notes methodically. For example, you may choose to number them using Arabic or Roman numerals. Or you may simply write out main ideas followed by a list of dashes leading to support details. Draw a squiggly line between sections of notes or between speakers' comments' notes, if there is more than one presenter. If you use shorthand, be sure you will be able to interpret it later.

5. Consider typing out your notes following the presentation. Unless you have used a laptop during the session, you may find you have several pages of notes that may be hard to decipher. If the session was important for your job or school, you can prepare a typed edition with condensed or expanded notes that come to mind as you rehearse it in your mind again. Then keep the notes on file for future reference, which will optimize the value of the presentation for a long time to come.

Taking notes is not just for secretaries. If you plan to attend an event where someone will be speaking about a topic that is important to you, be prepared to jot down key ideas in a form that you can use later.

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