Over the years, I often get asked how I stay organized and my common reply is "comprehensive note taking". I created a simple three-column method that I call "meeting sheets"; the methodology allows me to capture notes, action items and relevant terminology that occurs during the meeting.
Let's start from the top on how this three-column note taking method happened! I was straight out of college and I landed my first job as a consultant. I was toted around to every meeting that my boss attended for one sole purpose - take notes. I was told to listen to the conversation, be unobtrusive, take accurate notes and recite the highlights back to the owner while he drove to the next meeting.
Setting Up Three-Columns
I decided that typing on a computer would just make too much noise so I grabbed some standard college ruled paper I had left over from school. Then I drew an extra column on the right side of the paper. On top of each column, I created three headers. I labeled the skinny left column "Terms", the big center column "Notes" and the skinny right column "To Do". Each one has a specific purpose during the meeting.
How often are you in a meeting and someone mentions a term you've never heard before? The term is most likely a mnemonic phrase or some internal jargon that everyone knows. At the moment the term is exclaimed you want to stop and ask, what was that term? However, I have found that writing down the term for a moment in the left column gives you moment to pause. Someone else in the room may not know the same term or you may have an opportunity when the speaker is finished to ask what they just said. If the meeting keeps mentioning the same term over and over, I generally will put little tick marks next to the term each time it is mentioned. Use the "Terms" column to write down any term that interests you or you think is important. I often find myself writing down words to strengthen my vocabulary.
The notes section to me is the most challenging section of the sheet because you should jotting down questions, comments, and points that you have about the meeting. I have found the most effective way to be able to remember the notes later is to jot down specific moments that will spark other ideas connected to it. Let's say you are meeting with your boss and a potential client. During the meeting, your boss gets into a expose about how your companies services can help their company. At this time, I may be taking notes down about the clients body language or effectiveness of my bosses' delivery of the message. This way during the drive back when she says, "How do you think it went?", I will have specific points of reference of how it exactly went. I might say that during the meeting when you said, "We guarantee 100% job well-done.", the potential client crossed their arms and raised their eye brow. I also may have written down a question like, "Do you think we should create a video on our website that summarizes our company's satisfaction guarantee?". Use notes to keep focused during the meeting and be able to jar memories later when you have to give a concise summary.
"To Do" Column
How do you keep track of what you need to do next? I have found that most of things that I need to do come out of meetings. At the end of the meeting, there is generally a pause and then a list of who is going to do what by when. At this time, I generally have written down all the things that I need to do in my "To Do" column. Use this column to write down anything that you think you may need to do now or in the future. During a meeting you may think of something that you might want to do later, but not necessarily next. In many companies this might want to later becomes the "Parking Lot" or "Backlog" so write these down. The "To Do" column is a running tally of what you need to do now and later.
So how do you put this in action? First take any piece of paper and split it into three columns: Terms, Notes and To Do. Second follow the three-column Meeting Sheets methodology listed here. Third let me know if this worked for you and if you made any adjustments. This post is the first time I've articulated this note taking method online, but I've personally been sharing this method with friends and colleagues over the last twenty years. Stay organized with comprehensive note taking using the three-column meeting sheets method!