(5m reading time)
Good old-fashioned note-taking.

Like most people, I never really thought about how I took notes. Whether in high-school, college, or in the professional world, notes were just words on a page. I was proud of my level of organization if I managed to use bullets. Boy, was I missing something great: The Cornell Note-taking System.

Why Taking Notes by Hand Matters for Professionals

As 21st century professionals, we often feel compelled to use high-tech tools. Laptops, tablets, phablets, and phones have become ubiquitous in meetings. However, there are times when the pen (and paper) is mightier.

A meeting’s power lies in its ability to help you to connect with others–to engage in dialogue, build understanding, and come to resolution. This becomes difficult when you’re distracted by your tech. Let’s say you’re in a meeting with your client.

Scenario 1: Laptop

Laptop = Distraction

You sit across the table from your client and open up your laptop. Immediately a 10″ barrier arises between you two, as the laptop screen obscures your view of your client and vice-versa. Your client talks, but the clicking sounds of your typing distracts her and even disrupts the natural rhythm of her speech.

When you talk you can’t gesture, as the laptop’s screen obscures your client’s view of your hands. You regularly break eye contact as your eyes dart around your laptop’s screen. The client feels uncomfortable, as she can’t be sure whether she has your full attention. Are you consulting relevant notes, or are you answering unrelated email?

Scenario 2: Pen and Pad

Pen = Polite

You sit across the table from your client, lean your pad of paper on the table, and take out your pen. No barrier exists between you two, as the paper either lies flat on the table or tips slightly toward your lap. Your client talks, and your pen makes hardly a sound as you scribble your notes on your paper.

You can easily underscore a point with your hands. The pen becomes another tool for expression, not an obstacle. As the paper accepts free-form information, you can scrawl and scribble without visually tracking your writing. This means you rarely break eye contact. The client feels assured that she has your full attention.

Not only does pen-and-paper offer a better experience for your client (or fellow meeting attendee), it won’t fail you during the course of the meeting. Technology can let you down in ways that paper never will. And even if you don’t have face-to-face client meetings, any meeting can gain greater focus and productivity when it’s free of laptops and devices.

Knowing all this, why do we resist hand-written notes? Well, for me, it was because hand-written notes were a pain. They were a pain to write, and they always needed re-processing before they became useful. I accepted this inconvenience as the nature of notes. Happily, I was wrong.

Why My Notes Sucked

crowded notes
Hello, indecipherable pile of facts.

I didn’t realize it, but my old way of taking notes suffered some pretty serious short-comings. For example:

  • I had to use a highlighter or differently colored pen to show any key words, concepts, or dates
  • I had to rewrite and reorganize my notes to make them a useful part of the client dossier
  • My notes were hard to scan, so it could take a long time to find particular pieces of information

Perhaps some of these issues sound familiar to you. I didn’t even think of them as “issues” per se, but rather as a part of the inherent challenges of recording and learning new information. I had no idea that I was doing things the hard way.

Cornell Notes in a Nutshell

When I first heard of Cornell Notes, I thought of it as just a clever way to sell strangely lined paper. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it includes an entire information capture and absorption method. It’s easy to learn, and it’s not just for students taking classes. According to Walter Pauk (the Cornell professor who invented Cornell Notes) in his book How to Study in College:

“The system is flexible and far-reaching, but its secret is simple: Wide margins on the outside and the bottom of the text area are the key.”

Notepaper layout for taking Cornell Notes

Wide margins, that’s it??? Almost. Big margins become important tools for executing the method, which goes roughly like this:

  1. Take notes during your meeting in the Note Taking Area
  2. While you take notes:
    1. Write down any questions that occur to you in the Cue Column (left margin)
    2. Jot any important words, phrases, or titles in the Cue Column (left margin)
  3. After you’ve taken your notes:
    1. Read through what you’ve written
    2. Summarize it in one to two sentences in the Summaries (bottom margin)

According to a 2008 study, Cornell Notes improved people’s ability synthesize and apply learned knowledge. In a broad overview of various note-taking systems, Lifehack.org shares that the Cornell Notes system may be so powerful because it:

“helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.”

 How Cornell Notes Upped my Game

Cornell Notes have helped me a great deal. I no longer feel like I’m just trying to take meeting minutes when I take notes. The Cornell Notes format gets me to focus on the most important parts of the information coming at me. I’m always looking to pick out juicy stuff for my Cue Column!

Better yet, I know I have both the Cue Column and the Summaries to rely on for future orientation when re-reading my notes. So I feel confident to jump around on the page and scribble whatever comes to me. I’m no longer trapped by a linear structure!

Your notes can be your guide.

The empty Summaries area beckons me to review my notes after my meeting. I get the reward of filling in my own little synopsis at the bottom of each page of notes! So I can see at a glance whether I’ve properly reviewed and processed a page of notes. And when I come back to them later I can find information in a flash.

I just skim through my Summaries and glance briefly at my Cue Columns to hone in on where the information I seek  sits.

I think the Cornell Notes system works in almost any circumstance. I’ve used it in meetings with great success, while taking professional courses, and while attending conferences. I look forward to using Cornell Notes at my first unconference as well!

Your Turn!

Cornell Notes can help your brain absorb new info.

Have you used the Cornell Notes system? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether and how it worked for you. If not, I challenge you to give it a try and let me know how it works!

I feel confident Cornell Notes can help you easily capture and remember more and better information.