Effective Note Taking at a Tech Conference

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Ticket prices to attend a tech conference vary between $500 and $2000, depending on where you live and how popular the conference is. That’s a significant investment to make for a one-time event, so it’s in your interest to extract the most value you can from the experience. From applying what you’ve learned to sharing that knowledge with colleagues, it all starts with taking good notes.

Research shows that our brains need to recall memories frequently to remember them clearly. Note taking encourages recall by making it easy to review what you learned. To that end, I’ve put together a list of my favorite ways to take those all-important notes. They’re easy to use in a tight room where you might not have place for a laptop, and all you need is a notebook and pen.

Cornell Notes

You’ve probably guessed that this method was devised at Cornell University. It was created in the 1940’s by a professor of education who wanted college students to get the most from their lectures. The technique is still widely encouraged today, and works great for conference talks.

The concept is easy. A page is split into three parts:

  • A 33%-wide left column for jotting down keywords mentioned throughout the talk.
  • A 66%-wide right column for long form notes.
  • A 10% bottom row for a summary, or key takeaway of the talk.

Here’s what my notes look like for Dylan Beattie’s fantastic talk on software architecture:

I prepare a few pages ahead of time in my Rocketbook so that I can focus on the talk right from the start. I always start on a left-hand side page, so that I don’t have to flip back and forth between pages during the talk. Even more importantly for Rocketbook users, it avoids smudges by giving the ink a bit more time to dry.

I find the Cornell method useful for topics that I’m already somewhat familiar with. The keyword section serves as a recall device for concepts I already know, and the notes section fills in the gap with more detailed information on the aspects I’m less familiar with.

Box Method

This is the most visually appealing technique of the bunch. It consists of grouping related notes into a box, where each box represents a main topic within the talk, and is titled as such. It’s easy to find what you’re looking for afterwards since everything is logically grouped.

The Box method does have one flaw: it’s hard to add something to a box once you’ve closed it off and moved on to another box. Even worse, accidentally putting a comment in the wrong box is hard to correct. Nevertheless, it’s worth having a go at it.

Here’s what the boxed version of the same notes as above looks like:

The Box method is popular amongst note-takers that use an iPad or computer since most software support boxes by way of tables. It can work just as well on pen and paper too, but requires a bit of practice to get right.

Mind Mapping

Conference talks bombard you with lots of information in a short period of time. It’s futile to try and absorb the talk while taking detailed notes throughout. Inevitably, you’ll lose some context along the way.

The goal of the mind map is to create a picture that you can walk through later on. It keeps your notes focused on the key ideas of the talk and frees your brain up to absorb more of the details.

Start with the talk’s subject at the centre of a page. When a new idea is brought up, create a branch from the centre and write it down. Keep adding sub-branches until that idea is fully explored, then move on to the next top level idea. Write only a couple words for each idea: the goal is to use them as memory recall devices, so that you can concentrate on the talk.

Here’s the mind-mapped version of the same talk I’ve been using throughout this post:

Mind-mapping a talk can be tricky, since you don’t know how much space you’ll need ahead of time. To be on the safe side, turn your notebook sideways to maximize the real estate you have to play with. Yet another option is to use a letter sized notebook to avoid squeezing things in to a small page.

Choosing A Methodology

There are many ways to take notes. The Cornell method is the best all-arounder, the Boxing method makes for the clearest notes, and the mind map represents the talk most accurately. There are other options as well, such as the outline and charting methods.

Discover which you like best by trying them before the conference itself. You’ll find hundreds of conference talks on all manner of tech subjects on YouTube. It’s a great way to practice your note taking and learn a thing or two along the way, all from the comfort of your own home.

Finally, regardless of the technique you choose, review your notes two to three times in the hours and days following the talk. It’s essential to retaining the information you learned.

Happy conferencing!

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