Note taking and sharing

IF YOU THINK that you must type notes because you’ve had a few meetings, you’re wrong: we have meetings because we need notes. Our analysis is built not on impressionistic sentiments and recollections, but on a more tangible basis, which is the raw material of our craft: interview transcripts.  Without them, you’ll remain vague and shallow.

Sharing them with colleagues has value-added of its own. By trading meeting notes back and forth,  everyone learns more and faster. You collectively build an institutional memory, which may be tedious to contribute to, but is a precious resource to benefit from. You help your manager keep up with the substance of your work, and therefore do a better job at supporting and mentoring you throughout the process of overcoming obstacles to fieldwork, framing topics, drafting your analysis and editing your output. And, finally, notes you circulate to colleagues are usually more complete and structured than what you would keep to yourself – making for personal archives that you will find richer and easier to mine.

Writing up notes for others to read seems trivial, but it is in fact a skill that takes a little training to develop. There are varying styles out there, and the same person may take notes differently in different circumstances – from verbatim transcripts of official meetings to a few bullet points capturing essentials. Some people may get offended if you spend an hour asking them questions while keeping no visible trace of all their responses. Others, on the contrary, will find it awkward and unsettling, if not suspicious, if you start scribbling furiously. In yet other cases, you will have to go back and forth between taking down important facts, views and positions, and laying your pen down to respect an interlocutor’s expressed or tacit desire for more active engagement. There is no standard policy, and practice makes perfect.

Beyond practice, here is some general advice that applies broadly:

  • Type up all meeting notes after the fact. Notebooks quickly become unmanageable unless you’re a journalist, writing relatively short pieces resting on a manageable amount of material.
  • Do it as you go. Don’t delay typing memorized or handwritten material, as you’ll forget lots, fail to decipher your own notes, or just take shortcuts because of how grueling it is to catch up with a backlog. (When rushing from one meeting to the next over several days, you can at least keep track by sending yourself, for instance, quick emails drafted in between, which you can later revisit, organize and add to.)
  • Be thorough, rather than limiting yourself to that part of the encounter related to your immediate centers of interest. Your future self will love you for all that material you garnered when you had no idea of its worth.
  • Aim for a realistic rendition, capturing your interlocutor’s voice in the first person and through complete sentences, exactly like an audio transcript. It makes it easier for you to recollect the conversation, and for whoever you share it with to get a feel for its dynamics. It also is, quite simply, a more engaging read.
  • Don’t obsess about the exact wording, which will always be lost unless the meeting is audiotaped: go for the meaning, which may be truthfully conveyed in different words. We can take some minor liberties–as long as we are careful not to change the meaning of what was said.
  • Be very careful not to put words in your interlocutor’s mouth, though: what’s interesting is his/her views, not what you may want to hear or make him/her say.
  • Be as structured as possible when typing your notes. Conversations tend to go all over the place, which is how the brain and social interactions function. But writing can only be consumed when organized in linear fashion, which entails a “translation”: even the fuzziness of life must, in writing, be described in a straight and continuous line. Cut out things that are irrelevant, and move pieces around if it helps to create a narrative, gathering in one place sentences bearing on the same issue, even if they were strewn out in the discussion. Subheadings indicating changes in topic are useful. This doesn’t exclude more impressionistic notes, but these are more personal and most difficult to share.
  • Clearly demarcate something you’re not certain about (???), so that you or someone else can go back and check. The same applies to whatever needs background, explanation or analysis that was not included in the meeting itself, as well as to observations you may add about the atmospherics, which are important to. [One option is to keep your own voice between brackets.]
  • Build political and other sensitivities into your system. As a rule, whenever something strikes you as potentially sensitive, it is advisable not to mention the names of your interlocutors, unless they are officials obviously speaking on the record. Anonymized interviews, however, must be labeled so as to convey their relevance and help remember who they were, as in “senior banking executive in Beirut” or “tribal leader from Basrah”. If ever you come across particularly dangerous material (especially what a security agency would qualify as “actionable”, time-sensitive intelligence, or simply information that could prove highly embarrassing if leaked), ignore it entirely. That should definitely not be shared, nor even written. Indeed, you should treat all digital documents as potentially public, a behavior that will quickly become second nature.
  • But don’t go overboard and become paranoid: 99% of what we hear or witness is not truly sensitive!
  • Finally, play a long game and make sure your notes build up into a database you can easily go back to. Notes can be used many times and have an enduring value, to the extent you organize them to facilitate your own easy reference. Ideally they should be tagged with keywords. At a minimum, label them with titles that will help structure your archives. A simple but efficient system consists of naming files starting with the date followed by a brief description, e.g. “2016-7-18 memo on note-taking & sharing.” Writing the date backwards will automatically file your notes in chronological order, which is the most straightforward way of saving them. And the description showing up in the title makes it easy to scan many files at a glance.

Rolling stones gather no moss, goes the saying. Well, if you take notes in earnest, you’ll prove it wrong, by retaining a huge amount of what otherwise would get lost. On one condition: keep a backup!

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Illustration credit: Johann Sebastian Bach Choral prelude “Der Tag der ist so freudenreich” by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.

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