Is Your Note-taking a Help or a Hindrance?

July 2019

Closeup of woman hands note-taking on laptop and paper

Image: iStock

Over the years I’ve used different note-taking modes in meetings and conference sessions. Sometimes I use a laptop or tablet; other times, I go with paper and pen. One thing I’ve noticed in that time is how little I actually retain when I am taking notes electronically. Then again, I can make sense of my notes, which isn’t always the case with handwritten ones.

Several years ago, a Harvard Business Review intern  wrote about what we miss when we take notes on laptops. And, if you work in content marketing, you take a lot of notes. The author cited research showing we retain less information when we type away on a keyboard, versus judiciously writing notes.

Transcribing versus imbibing

Essentially, when we take notes on a laptop, we are transcribing what we hear. This allows us to get down more information than if we are trying to keep up using freehand. However, our brain is focused on typing, not imbibing information. As a result, we have a lower recall rate than if we listened and wrote longhand.

If you are gathering information during a kickoff call with a content marketing client, being able to sift through a thorough recitation of comments and observations is useful. But if you are gathering data for a future presentation, your handwritten notes better stick with you. (And, it’s less tempting to browse other files or sites during inevitable lulls.)

The distraction factor

That last point about toggling between an open doc and other pages or sites doesn’t just distract you. It annoys those around you.

More than a decade ago, I attended a tech conference and, for the first time, used my laptop to take notes. The main ballroom was large and dark, and my laptop lit up not just my seating area, but those surrounding me. My constant tapping also was audible, and not just to me. At one point the person next to me turned to someone on the other side of him and loudly whispered: “I wish they didn’t allow live tweeting.” I looked around to see who he was referring to—given I wasn’t on Twitter—and realized he meant me.

Suddenly aware of my behavior, I quietly shut the laptop cover and pulled out a notebook and pen. Now more “present,” I began to pay closer attention to the actual presentations. The PowerPoints really popped and the live demos fascinated me in a way they hadn’t when I was staring at my screen instead of the speakers’.

That day stayed with me for a long time. So did the habit of taking handwritten notes, especially in crowded conference or meeting rooms.

The penmanship problem

I don’t recall getting excellent grades in penmanship, but I do know that by the time I finished college, I had horrible handwriting. This posed a huge problem for someone who took notes for a living, and I solved it by coming up with my own shorthand.

This strategy turned out to be a best practice for taking notes during meetings. Specifically, experts recommend you:

  • Use the less intrusive pen and paper, especially if you’ll be among those talking. It eliminates a laptop’s physical barrier and will encourage better eye contact.
  • Learn shorthand. This actually can be taught, but many people, like me, develop their own system. Just make sure you have a “key” so you later understand what you’ve written.
  • Fill in major topics on a page in advance for meetings, especially those with agendas. It can save time if a conversation moves rapidly.
  • Review your notes and fill in gaps immediately after a meeting or session. This is when your brain is still able to remember missing information.

Is the pen mightier than the keyboard? Like all things, it depends. But if you are reliant on your laptop or tablet for note-taking, go old school and see if you digest information differently. You might just learn a thing or two that you didn’t even realize you needed to know.


Anne Saita


P.S. Want more on the science behind note-taking? Then check out this blog post that was published after we posted this one.