In Meetings, Pen & Paper, Not Glass and Fingers

by Randy Murray on January 27, 2011

Recently I wrote about not letting technology get in the way during meetings with clients. In particular I mentioned that I keep my iPad, a marvelous device and much better to travel with than a laptop, off the table and tucked away in my briefcase. My article garnered a lot of new readers and some interesting discussions.

In particular, Ben Brooks, fellow Read & Trust network member and proprietor of The Brooks Review, was stimulated to write TWO detailed responses. They’re both well-argued explanations of why he thinks that the iPad is perfectly suited to meetings. They’re very interesting and I recommend them both to you.

Ben may be right, but only for a select few, people like himself who can master the technology to a degree that it becomes invisible. It doesn’t work that way for me and I’m pretty good with the device. Most people I know simply couldn’t operate it at the level required to take accurate notes without bringing a meeting to a screeching halt.

Let me return to my original premise. I’m not anti technology. I’m all for using the right tools at the right time. What I am opposed to is anything that gets in the way of accomplishing what you need to in a meeting, of slowing it down, or impeding your personal connection with your client.

I use a Moleskine notebook and a pen because I can use them naturally and easily, probably because I’ve been doing it for years. Unconscious mastery is the level of skill where the individual can perform the task without consciously thinking about it.  I can make notes without making anyone wait, without pause, and capture not only the really interesting things that are said, collecting my reactions to them and the ideas the present themselves.

Perhaps most important to me is the pace of the meeting. When ideas are flying and questions are being asked, I don’t like to have pauses, even short ones, interrupting the flow. Ben may be able to do that by touch-typing on an iPad but I cannot. I’m betting that most can’t. I’ve even experimented with using the iPad with a stylus to make notes, but I’m not satisfied with that, either.

The only time I ask for a pause is when I do it for effect, to make an impression. “That was a terrific idea. Let me take a moment and make sure I’ve got it right.” Then I read it back to make sure I’ve worded it correctly. Yes, it’s a bit theatrical, but I find that if you don’t overuse this technique and are genuine and honest in your appreciation, the client is flattered by the attention and praise and will continue to open up and speak – furthering the meeting’s goals.

I suspect that the iPad or other devices will reach this level of sophistication sooner or later, but it’s not there for me now. Sure, I can type rapidly, probably over eighty words per minute using a physical keyboard, but it’s distracting for others. The pen and pad don’t completely disappear to the others in the meeting, but they don’t add to the distractions.

Yes, the iPad, like laptops, is useful for reference. That may be a great meeting role for the tool—as long as the flow of the meeting isn’t interrupted. If it’s going to take more than a few seconds to find the answer to the question, it’s often better to answer it in a follow-up to the meeting.

That leaves the question of what to do with the notes after the meeting. For me, that’s a crucial part of the process and calls for reflection and thought. The steps are simple, but very effective.

  1. Take notes during the meeting.
  2. Drop the notes in my inbox when I return to my desk.
  3. At a later time, process the notes into an expanded form, transcribing not just the contents of my notebook, but other ideas that they give rise to and my responses after reflecting on the meeting.

Yes, transcription is work, but for me it’s the crucial step where things really come together. It’s where I make my action plan, where I organize steps and to-dos, where I think of those items that didn’t occur to me during the rush of conversation and debate. My post-meeting report, even if it’s just for myself, is where I have a chance to think, and think deeply. And that, after all, is what people pay me for. Sure, I’d love automatic and accurate transcription of the meeting audio, but I only use that if I think I missed something or want to get a quote exactly right. I rarely go to the bother of manually transcribing recordings, and if I really need transcriptions, there are services for that.

The notes I make with pen and paper during meetings are just the start of the process for me. Things happen just too damn fast for me to do that using my fingers to try and touch type on the iPad’s glass surface.

If you’re like Ben and you can use the iPad without letting it get in the way, go for it. I envy your mastery. For me, I’ll keep it in the bag, then after the meeting take it out and use it to help me think and process.

In Meetings, Pen & Paper, Not Glass and Fingers by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Iain Broome January 27, 2011 at 8:28 am

I’m very much a pen and paper person for taking notes in meetings. And I try not to take too many, either. That’s not to say I’m not listening or not bothered about what other people are saying, just that I listen better and contribute more when I’m giving my colleagues or a client my full attention. Like you Randy, I think I’d struggle to handle the iPad and be completely effective.

I’ve actually reverted to pen and paper for my diary and to do list, actually. I’ve taken and adapted Nick Cernis’ brilliant Todoodlist system. I’ll have to explain more in a full blog post, I think!

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Randy Murray January 27, 2011 at 8:46 am

I love my iPad, I just don’t find it to be the “One Ring”.

Frankly, I could conduct most meetings with nothing at all, simply focus completely on my client and make notes after. But I think that would trend to creep people out – the focus might be too intense!

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Michael Hurley January 27, 2011 at 8:33 am

I agree whole heartedly. Pen and paper is best for speed capture. My brain works to fast for my fingers to type!

See this tweet as an example:
http://twitter.com/#!/imyke/status/30618038499803137 

Great post captain!

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Randy Murray January 27, 2011 at 8:44 am

I love the look of your notes. Mine appear to be encrypted – a feature of my completely indecipherable handwriting.

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Aaron Mahnke January 27, 2011 at 8:36 am

Great post Randy!

I find that, while I’m pulled to the digital world, I can only get so much done there. So for me, digital tools like OmniFocus on the Mac and iOS devices are great for capturing, organizing and scheduling, but they still lack the touch of real-world planning. So every day, I open up a fresh page in my Action Method notebook (because of the spiral-binding and open-flat access) and plot out what I’m doing every hour of the work day, including lunch and phone/in-person meetings.

I feel like this gives me a better grasp of what I can actually accomplish in my day, so rather than running around like a mad man trying to do everything that I’ve ever captured, I can focus on the immediate needs, and the tasks for the day. And it also helps me schedule new design work in the process.

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Iain Broome January 27, 2011 at 8:43 am

I think that sums up it up pretty well Aaron. I’m all for technostuff for long term planning and organising, and especially for doing, yer know, things. but when I need to keep track of things in the here and now, I’ve found I’m much better when I have a pen and a piece of old tree.

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Randy Murray January 27, 2011 at 8:43 am

Excellent point, and I think you’ve made something clear to me: I take notes by hand and then process the notes, not to upload the information into my computer, but to upload it into my head. What you’re doing with your daily schedule isn’t to keep it neatly organized, it’s to make it clear and present in your mind.

Omnifocus and your calendar are great for storing and organizing, but at some point we have to load items into our own memory so we can work on them.

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Michael Ramm January 27, 2011 at 9:06 am

I cannot imagine sitting in a meeting without my notebook and pen. I do not have an iPad, but I do use my laptop a lot, but I would never consider bringing it into one of my meetings.

Excellent post as always, Randy!

@Ian, I would love to see an expanded writeup on your use of Todoodlist. I bought it a few years ago, but have never been able to fully adapt it in my system. Though I have found most things tough to adapt in my IT (Mgr/worker) role.

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Randy Murray January 27, 2011 at 9:18 am

Thanks, Michael.

My experience using tech in meetings is usually frustrating. Someone ends up waiting while the person struggling with the tech tries to look something up/get it to project/tries to catch up/updates Facebook.

My standard rules for meetings are:

1. Avoid them when possible.
2. When unavoidable, keep them short, focused, and productive.

Thanks for posting!

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Iain Broome January 27, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Michael – indeed I will write it up. I also owe the world a write up of my post-it note system, which I made up and used to structure and organise my novel!

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Mari January 27, 2011 at 5:56 pm

I, too, cast my vote for writing notes vs. typing. For years I was a fan of one pen or another, but recently I have re-embraced the ol’ #2 pencil. The softness of the lead, the smoothness of my quickie scrawl as the pencil travels across the paper, and the smell of the wood after sharpening all appeal to me in a way that’s 180° from using a keyboard. Undoubtedly my affection for the pencil can also be traced to my art school background. Full disclosure: I also like to gather up all the dull pencils and use my electric pencil sharpener. grrrr-rrr :)

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Randy Murray January 27, 2011 at 6:29 pm

Seriously old school. I’m right there with you. For editing, I like using a Ticonderoga Erasable Carmine Red 425T, manually sharpened to a laser point.

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Genghis7777 March 20, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Your article explains why I still use my Apple Newton to take notes in meetings and from there its quite convenient to produce minutes that can be quickly emailed to everyone.

Although someone may ask after the meeting about how effective the Newton might be, it has never distracted anyone during open discussion.

There is also an aesthetic that comes from handwriting that puts you in contact with your information that keyboard based text input cannot do. Its hard to explain.

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