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Main Street: Don’t just sit there. Take some notes

March 8, 2018 GMT

A few weeks ago I attended a luncheon in the Chicago area along with about 200 other professionals. The talk was very good and helpful. Much of the information was a review of things I already knew but there were several concepts that were new that I wanted to remember.

The speaker did a good job in illustrating his points with many practical examples. On most such occasions I write down key points. What rather shocked me in looking around was that I saw no one else taking even a single note!

Let me ask you a couple of questions. If you attend church what was the sermon about last week, two weeks ago or three months ago. Very few of us can remember. The same thing applies to all kinds of events, speeches and lectures.

However, chances are if you were in a business meeting with a planned agenda (chaired by your boss) last week, you felt compelled to take some notes. I suspect you are more likely to remember those items even if you do not look at your notes again. And of course if you need a reference you would have one.

Let me quote from previous column I wrote back in 2012 about careful listening and notetaking.

“This was all driven home to me a few years ago when John Wright, a former University of Illinois football star and immensely successful insurance executive, came to speak to our students. Even though he normally received a substantial fee, he graciously did it as a favor to Olivet Nazarene University students. Wright not only was an inspiring speaker, but had life-changing advice for students and professors alike.

“But he soon noticed that even though most of the students were riveted to his entertaining presentation, almost none of them or their professors were taking notes. In the nicest way possible he took us to the woodshed. He said we should never, ever listen to a speaker without being prepared with pen and paper and to actively take notes. I have never forgotten that day. And while I obviously am not at 100 percent, I have taken his chiding to heart and have gained enormously from his advice.”

Let me put forth a three hypothesis on why, especially adults, don’t take notes.

1. They honestly believe they will remember without writing it down. I’d be willing to wager a “Ben Franklin” that of the 200 people that attended the luncheon, fewer than 20 percent of them could name even 3-4 of the major points a week later.

2. Sometimes I have encountered a strange attitude, that “self-important” people don’t have to write anything down because someone else will record it for them. They believe taking notes will make them look less knowledgeable, less powerful or working below their paid grade. Quite the opposite is true.

3. They simply have lost the art of taking effective notes. They think, “Well I’m no longer a student. So what’s the point?” But that is wrong. Today we all must be lifelong learners. Knowledge is doubling every 12 months and that is accelerating.

I have always been an extensive note taker, although I must confess while I use to take sermon notes, I had stopped until recently. I asked myself the same question I asked you above and had to give myself a failing grade.

Memory is an intricate thing. It is built around complex neural connections in the brain. By taking notes we engage not only our mind but also motor skills that scientific research has shown enhances learning.

I’m not patting myself on the back, but for me – as I mentioned above – it’s not unusual to suddenly remember an idea or concept from a long past class or workshop. In the process of taking notes (and yes in many cases forcing myself to memorize them for a test) ideas and concepts “pop” out from my mind.

Many professionals such as doctors, engineers, teachers, scientists and others can attest to the same. If you are a parent or grandparent, you likely hear your students complaining, “Why do I have to learn this stuff let alone memorize it? I’ll never use it!”

While it might be true that you will only directly use 5-10 percent of what you have learned, you just don’t know which 10 percent that will be.

In my early career as a director of adult-continuing education, first at Eastern Iowa Community College, and then at the Center for Professional Development at Florida State University, I developed and coordinated well more than a thousand seminars, workshops and special events.

Rarely would I hire a professional to teach if they did not have prepared outlines and handouts for those attending. While we could not force participants to take notes, most did. The notes were designed to engage the participants by listening, taking notes and then when appropriate, involve them in discussions and activities.

I encourage you next time you are at a lecture, hearing a sermon or listening to a keynote speech, take a few notes. You will most certainly surprise yourself on just how much extra you gain and retain well into the future.