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How to Take Effective Conference Notes

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Despite the independent aspect of web work, it’s typical for many of us to gather at conferences and conventions. As Dawn mentioned in a previous post, we all have different goals when attending these events. If your primary goal is to learn, then note-taking is essential, especially if you’ll be attending lectures.

But how can you focus on note taking when you have other things on your mind such as networking, the other sessions you have to attend, and possibly some additional work you have to do? Here are three things you should keep in mind:

  • Remember that being present and attentive is your priority. This means actively listening, looking at visual aids, and paying attention to the lecture itself. While you can record audio, video, or view live tweets, these must be for reference only and not a substitute for the real thing. It makes no sense to sit in an auditorium for an hour only to repeat that hour via a recording because you were too busy taking notes or getting to know the person beside you to digest the finer details.
  • Know why you’re taking down notes. Is it for faster recall or to record your own insight? Will you be using your notes to write a blog post or make a presentation at work? The reasons behind your note-taking will help you determine the best approach and tools to use.
  • Get as much information as you can about the tech specs of the event beforehand. Will there be free internet access available? How reliable is it and will be be available throughout the entire venue? Will you be able to plug or charge your devices easily? This information can help you choose your tools accordingly.

With that out of the way, it’s only a matter of getting your notes down as efficiently as possible.

Using Tools to Improve Note-taking

According to a research paper on note taking, in an academic setting the average note-taking speed for students is 0.3 to 0.4 words per second, while lecturers speak at around 2 to 3 words per second. With this speed discrepancy it’s no wonder that most people find it hard to jot down concise yet complete notes. Still, there are ways to work around this:

  • Don’t rely solely on text-based notes. While many of us are used to pen-and-paper note-taking methods, the difference in speech and writing speed means that we can’t rely on them alone. This is why we should look beyond written notes. We could include mindmaps, photos (of important slides, for example), or audio recording. Some apps that allow you to record in a variety of formats include Evernote, Springpad, FolderBoy (which Charles reviewed here), and Notepub.
  • Use fast tools. Don’t just look for fast loading time or responsiveness, but note your own speed when using the tool. This means that some options aren’t ideal for many people, such as alphanumeric keypads and apps for handwriting or speech recognition. You can even use SMS abbreviations, shorthand, macros, and word completion apps to increase speed further.
  • Process your notes. Directly after the lecture is the best time to enter the second phase of note-taking: information processing. This is where you’ll start to consult external sources for additional information and make connections among the things you’ve learned. You could do this by organizing all the material you’ve gathered and by making annotations. Some handy annotation tools include Apollo and A.nnotate.

Taking a cue from student life, don’t be afraid to borrow the notes of other attendees. You can borrow notes directly from people you have a strong rapport with, or wait for bloggers to post their own notes or articles summarizing the talk. They might include some points you’ve missed or make connections that you didn’t think of. Just be sure to offer to share your own notes and express that you’re looking for something supplementary. You don’t want to leave the impression that you’re asking them to do all your work for you.

It may take a lot of practice to become very effective at note-taking, but the important thing is to get better each time.

Share your note-taking tips below.

Photo by stock.xchng user christgr

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5 Responses to “How to Take Effective Conference Notes”

  1. Perhaps the most important point, given the speed differential between speaking and writing, is to listen for the key insight or critical take-away rather than trying to take down everything. If you get the key insight right you will remember the supporting material.

    And I agree with Randy: tear down those tweet and live blogging walls. They create unnecessary visual noise.

  2. I ended a recent post, about multitasking with,

    “My favorite tweet wall post at the recent highly informative BIN2010 Conference was, “this tweet wall is distracting me.” As much as I tried, I was distracted — and I observed others who did not have their full attention on the prez. Not only was the audience distracted, but the presenters were distracted, as well. Maybe it’s only the ADHD, but I’d like to know, do tweet walls distract you? Mr. Dorsey, tear down this wall!”

    What is your Opinion? Why, since people started carrying cell phones, have we encouraged attendees to turn off their phones and now we encourage this behavior?

  3. I like the usefulness of this post – most importantly the reminder that there is a reason that we all used to study in school before a test. It’s called study hall for a reason – it gave us time to integrate our knowledge – and so man times I see conference attendees (including myself) not allowing time for quite contemplation and integration.

  4. It’s just an observation. Recently I’ve been to a number of conference where there’s wifi and people sitting at laptops.

    Most of them appear to be doing their email, twitter, Facebook stuff rather than anything directly related to the conference material. Makes you wonder why they pay hundreds of dollars to attend these things.

  5. Here in Finland we have a good tradition of taking conference notes collectively in a web service. In the old times this was done with Jaiku, and nowadays with Qaiku on the Seminaarikannu channel:

    Unlike Twitter, Qaiku actually keeps the liveblogged threads in history and you can easily return to them. An example from last spring’s Linux Collaboration Summit in San Francisco where we had some Qaiku users attending: