Today marks the first of three conferences I’ll be attending this month, and I hope to bring back a ton of ideas, best practices, blog posts and more from each. Over the years, I’ve developed a system for how I take notes at conferences, and (more importantly) how I process and use those notes afterward to extract their value for my business and our clients.
Below are several recommendations based on my system for how to not only take better notes faster at your next off-site event, but also ensure that those notes are immediately put to good use and effectively archived for yourself and others without extra work.
Create a system in advance
No matter how many (or which) of the steps below you incorporate for your next conference, have a system or game plan in advance. Know what you’re going to do, what tools and/or software you need, so that when you get there you can focus on the content and use your pre-determined system to capture it.
Come prepared with your own tools
That system you determine to use for yourself likely doesn’t include those cute, hotel or conference center-branded notepads and pencils you’ll find on the table in front of you. Those are fine for emergencies, but likely aren’t your best note-taking tool.
Use a keyboard if possible
In meetings, I try to use paper and pen to take notes, as I don’t want those I’m meeting with to see me with my nose in my laptop constantly. But at a conference, it’s different. I prefer a keyboard to speed up data capture, plus begin my note indexing right away (based on where notes are captured and saved). I most often use Microsoft Word, but Evernote is a great tool as well for quick note-taking stored and accessible in the cloud at all times.
Have paper or tablet handy for sketching
I do still have that notepad handy (see this post for how I process hand-written notes later), especially for sketching more visual notes – graphs, sales pipelines, and other things that are more difficult to type.
Have email and your social media dashboard open & ready for immediate action
There will likely be ideas, Web sites, referenced articles and books, etc. you may want to take action on or alert others to right away. You may also want to cut-and-paste some of your best notes into your social media channels (using the conference hashtag, for example). Have your email and preferred social media dashboard (Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, etc.) open in the background (ideally in offline mode so as not to distract you with every inbound email from back at the office).
Highlight to-do’s and key points in your note for easy access later
If you want a quick way to identify action items, follow-up notes for your team, and otherwise scan through notes (either on the plane home or as soon as you get back to the office), mark them with an empty box or star or something you’ll recognize. Be consistent with whatever you use for note-taking back at the office so it’s fast and easy to process.
Name and save files by topic, speaker or session
Designate a folder somewhere on your hard drive (ideally somewhere that syncs to the cloud too) to save a full file of your conference notes, and consider separate notes (i.e. separate Word documents) for each session, topic or speaker. That way you can name the notes in a way that’s faster and easier to find later. This works if you’re taking notes entirely in a cloud-based service like Evernote as well.
Dedicate time to review and process notes post-show
The sooner you do this, the better. Do it on the plane ride home, or while waiting for the flight, or at minimum schedule time for yourself as soon as you’re back in the office to process action items and immediate next steps. If you don’t do it quickly, you’ll get sucked back into office life and fire drills and you’ll never do it (and all those good ideas and takeaways are more likely to get lost forever).
Publish or share your notes with your team (with due apologies for format)
Unless you’ve been asked to prepare and publish a formal conference report for broad consumption (i.e. to an executive team or clients), simply make your notes available to your team as is. Unless you wrote them in an entirely different language, I bet they can figure out what your digital chicken scratch was attempting to say.