Michael MacDonald

Look Ma, No Notes

In Business on September 23, 2009 at 8:00 am

Here’s a challenge for you… don’t take a pen or paper to your next meeting! Just focus on paying attention instead.

I often wonder what the heck people are writing on their notepads in meetings: where to go for lunch, their shopping lists, ideas for a new startup, new nicknames for the boss?

One legitimate reason is to record the action items assigned to you. That sounds fair enough but how many action items can you possible have? You should only have 3 or 4 action items arising from a meeting and you ought to be able to remember that many items in your head. If you end up with more than a few action items then you’ve obviously been lumbered with all the work or the meeting discussed far too many things because it went on too long or they don’t happen often enough. Perhaps your meetings are simply the wrong forum for discussing and deciding on work.

People place too much emphasis on notetaking in meetings. The fact is, most people simply write down the agenda items and then never look at them again. Their notepad is disconnected from their to-do lists, work requests system or project tasks app. Chances are they’ll write down the same action items in the next meeting because they forgot after the first meeting.

A meeting should be for discussion not for managers to dictate work. If it’s a planning session or a “bigger” meeting then it should be minuted, so there’s no need for attendees to bother with scribbling down the same information as everyone else in the meeting. Relax, stop writing and start listening. Try to be engaged and to contribute. Ask questions, even if it might make you look dumb. It probably isn’t a dumb question and other people were probably thinking it too. Make meetings productive for you. If they’re not, don’t go!

So, be bold. Go into your next meeting without a pen and paper. Send the message that you are there to listen and talk, not just to write verbatim.

[Addendum: of course, for some people the act of writing helps them to think and to remember, and a lot depends on the types of meetings you have. But just try leaving your notepad behind and see what difference it makes. I've found it liberating not having a notepad full of "work" which is disconnected from our standard channels for recording and monitoring work tasks.]

[Extra addendum: in reality, I just lost my pen one day and needed to justify turning up to a meeting empty handed!]

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