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.

  • Client Meetings Without Technology Getting In The Way
  • The iPad: The Best Thing to Happen to Meetings Since the 1960s

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.

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