Better Meetings

How to take meeting notes that are actually useful

Illustration of a woman typing on a computer

Sometimes the best productivity hacks are, shall we say, unsexy. Such is the case for taking meeting notes, a process that we undervalue for how much it can make us better at our jobs.

Meeting notes are important because our memories aren’t great. It’s easy to think you’ll remember who committed to what during a meeting — but important information is often lost without reference documents to prompt our memories.   

The good news is that documentation really does help with memory recall. In a 2018 study called , researchers found that short exposure to a simple image-keywords slide deck increased participants’ ability to recall their previous meeting by up to 15%.

Keep reading to find out the best way to take meeting notes that are useful to you and your team.

Are meeting notes and meeting minutes the same thing?

Nope. Meeting notes capture the goals, action items, and important moments of a meeting. Meeting minutes are formal notes that document:

  • Meeting attendees

  • Absentees

  • Start and finish time

  • Discussion topics

  • Key points and decisions 

Meeting notes and meeting minutes may overlap, but meeting minutes are for organizations that need a formal process for meeting documentation. Auditors and courts see meeting minutes as official records that reflect the decision of an organization’s board, which may come in handy during legal proceedings.

In this piece, we're focusing on meeting notes, which are more informal but just as important for keeping work on track.

Why have meeting notes? 

Meeting notes are important for two reasons: recall and collaboration. When you take meeting notes, you outsource your memory to a more reliable recall engine than your brain. Our days are chaotic enough without needing to remember the details of all our meetings. 

Ideas we fall in love with during brainstorming sessions, questions that improve those ideas, recommendations from other smart people with more ideas, and next steps to make those ideas a reality — it’s a lot.

But great meeting notes capture all of it, and note-taking systems can make it surprisingly easy to do so.

Meeting notes aren’t just for you, either. They’re great for sharing key moments when others didn’t attend the meeting (because they had a conflict or because their presence wasn’t required in real-time). And they're great for keeping everyone who does attend a meeting on the same page.

The benefits of shared meeting notes vs. individual notes 

If you want to take handwritten notes for your own reference during a meeting, that’s okay. But it’s an asynchronous world, and shared meeting notes are the collaboration enhancers teams need to be productive.

Shared notes can mean one of two things (or both!):

  • Meeting notes are always shared in one easy-to-find spot, like a Google Drive folder, Notion page, or other team collaboration tool.

  • Team members take notes collaboratively (a.k.a they share the note-taking responsibility) and everyone walks away with the same meeting notes. This is how it works when you use Vowel — the shared notepad means everyone sees the agenda and can take notes together as the meeting progresses.

    Shared meeting notes in Vowel

Shared notes are especially useful for recurring meetings, like one-on-ones or weekly team syncs. A shared space for all meeting notes will:

  • Create a knowledge base for all the decisions you made together

  • Make it easy to carry over action items from one meeting to another

  • Track performance over a period of time

  • Act as a shortcut to planning your next meeting agenda (this is big!)

  • Help you assess the outcomes of your project management efforts

5 useful tips for taking meeting notes

So how do you take meeting notes you’ll actually use later? Here’s a five-step process that will make it easy:

1. Use the agenda as your notes template 

As several wise people have said:

If you’re obsessed with meeting productivity, you're obsessed with agendas. But what people miss when they talk about agendas is that they’re also templates for your meeting notes. 

Set up your agenda in a shared space that will be visible to all participants during the meeting, like a Google Doc or agenda in Vowel.

Then attach or send a link to that agenda before the meetings happens, so everyone can open it when the meeting starts. During the meeting, use the agenda as your outline to take notes as a team in real-time. Check off topics as you go, and write questions or feedback under each agenda heading.

Vowel upcoming tab

2. Focus on ideas, questions, decisions, and action items

One way to take effective meeting notes is to borrow from the quadrant method, which breaks down the contents of any meeting into four categories:

  • Questions: As you move through the meeting, you’ll jot down questions. Write them down and make sure to get answers before the meeting wraps up (or assign them to someone to find out). 

  • Notes: Focus your notes section on important insights, goals, ideas, and decisions.

  • Action items for you: List action items and next steps that you're responsible for delivering.

  • Action items for others: List action items for other people at the meeting, or items you need to pass on to others who aren't there.   *Note: You can combine action items into one section if it's easier, which is usually what we do at Vowel when taking shared notes.

You can put these four headings below your main agenda to easily guide you during the meeting (see below). Or, if each agenda item/meeting topic is dense, you can add these 3-4 items as subheadings to each agenda item.

Outline for taking notes in a meeting in Vowel

3. Ask for clarification (and back up notes with transcription)

Meeting notes are only as useful as they are contextual and accurate. You know what it’s like to read meeting notes after the fact and wonder what they even mean.

How did your team reach that conclusion? Why is that piece of information important? Without context and clarification, you may find yourself doing extra legwork to fill in the gaps after the meeting is over.

Avoid information loss by asking for clarification when you don’t understand what you’re jotting down. Asking for clarification isn’t annoying — it’s how you become more effective as a team.   

Bonus: If you use a meeting transcription software like Vowel's and take shared meeting notes to track decisions and action items, those notes will be time-stamped to the transcript, so you can easily jump to that point in the meeting recording to fill in gaps.

4. Process your notes after the meeting 

You’ve had the meeting and taken some great collaborative notes with your team — congrats! You now have what you need to be productive after the meeting.

To make sure you’re getting the most out of your notes, we recommend a quick review immediately after the meeting, when it’s fresh in your mind.

Here’s what you’ll want to do within the first 20 minutes of your meeting:

  • Write a high-level summary of takeaways for your team

  • Check the notes to make sure they captured what’s important, according to your memory

  • Clean up the meeting notes and make them easier to read, adding headers, bulleted lists, and action items as needed

When you hang up from a Vowel meeting, you'll see a recap screen where you can add a quick summary of what happened, and see links shared during the meeting and action items. This screen is visible to anyone who attended the meeting from their Recent folder.

Post-meeting summary screen in Vowel

5. Distribute the notes and action items 

The last step to creating excellent meeting notes — and ensuring your meetings aren't a waste of time — is to share them with your team. 

Make sure your meeting notes live in a centralized place that’s accessible to everyone who attended the meeting. Depending on the nature of the meeting, you may need additional privacy mechanisms to make sure only certain people have access and not others.

When you share your meeting notes with your team, you’re handing over a personalized, contextualized to-do list to every participant — which increases the likelihood that everything will get done.

For example, when you share notes from recurring meetings, you’re more likely to focus your next meeting on problem-solving because you won’t be repeating yourself from previous meetings.

Want ideas of where and how to store notes from all your company meetings? Jump to the next section.

Where to take and store meeting notes 

It’s one thing to agree on a note-taking process as a team — it’s another thing to bake note-taking processes into your culture across all teams. If you’re trying to standardize shared notes across your company, you have some options:

  1. Every meeting comes with an assigned notetaker, who shares the notes after the meeting and puts them in a centralized location (e.g. Google Drive, Notion page, wiki, or wherever your company stores internal knowledge).

  2. Everyone can access and add notes during the meeting, and the notes are shared afterward (this is what we promote at Vowel!).

When you’re trying to establish a process for sharing notes, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Where are notes taken? 

  • Where are notes stored? 

  • How are notes stored? (naming conventions, folders, etc.)

  • How are notes shared? 

  • How does everyone find notes without constant reminders? 

Here are a couple of ideas:

Notion

In the blog post How Notion uses Notion, the company describes how they use their own software to increase internal productivity — and how they share notes across all teams.

Notion sets up a dedicated meeting notes page, which houses all notes from all meetings across all teams. Here’s what it looks like at a high level:

Meeting notes in Notion

The database shows: 

  • The type of meeting

  • Who attended the meeting

  • Tags for each department

If you want to see only meetings from the marketing team, you can use Notion’s tag filtering feature to see only meetings with the marketing tag. 

Notion sets up shortcuts by allowing team members to choose from a variety of meeting note templates, which everyone can access. The standardization helps someone to understand the notes even if they didn’t attend the meeting. Note that you'd require a paid account to enjoy full access to this functionality.

Google Docs

If you’re a Google Workspace customer or G Suite Basic/Business customer, you can see a Create/Take meeting notes button when ​​you open event details in your Google Calendar. Clicking on the button opens a Google Doc with a template that includes:

  • The date and meeting name

  • List of attendees

  • A section for notes

  • A section for action items

When the meeting is over, the document will be attached to the calendar event and available to everyone who attended the meeting. 

One drawback to keeping share notes as Google Docs is that they’re not easy to tag, and it can be difficult to find documents if you don’t know where to look. 

Vowel

In Vowel, meeting agendas come into the meeting with you and become your shared notes. Everyone who's invited to a particular meeting has instant access to those meeting notes (plus the recording and transcript) after a meeting is over from their Recent tab (or from their Google Calendar event).

A screenshot of Vowel where users can view meetings from their dashboard

If you want to move your meeting notes out of Vowel and into a project management tool like Asana or Notion, you can copy and paste your shared notes or transcript and put them in a new page — and soon we'll have integrations to help you automate that workflow (stay tuned!).

The future of meeting notes

As asynchronous communication becomes more of a standard in how we get things done remotely, shared meeting notes are a must-have for team collaboration. We don’t need to be in a physical office to be effective — as long as we have a meeting notes system to make sure everyone stays on track.

At Vowel, we believe that when the responsibility of meeting notes is shared — and there's a culture of how you take and store notes — then everyone stays on the same page. Documentation for the win!

If you want to make your meetings more productive and collaborative, try Vowel for free!