How BIll Gates Takes Notes

In 2003, Rob Howard described a meeting with Bill Gates

The first thing I notice as the meeting starts is that Bill is left-handed. He also didn’t bring a computer in with him, but instead is taking notes on a yellow pad of paper. I had heard this before – Bill takes amazingly detailed notes during meetings. I image he has to, given all the information directed at him. The other thing I noticed during the course of the meeting is how he takes his notes. He doesn’t take notes from top-to-bottom, but rather logically divides the page into quadrants, each reserved for a different thought. For example, it appeared that all his questions were placed at the bottom of the page.

This is an anecdote that continues to be retold whenever the subject of note taking comes up on the web. Perhaps It’s most remarkable that Bill Gates would come into a room with nothing more than a yellow legal pad. And then proceed to take detailed notes. After all as a computer visionary and one of the richest men in the world, Gates could have an assistant take notes. He could ask for a detailed minutes and summaries from all meeting attendees. Or he could sit back as the senior guy in the room and observe the meeting, remaining aloof from the give and take of the project review.

Taking notes during a meeting sends a powerful message. It directly demonstrates that the notetaker is listening and processing the discussion. It shows that what is being said is important enough to record permanently. I make my living providing strategic advice and oversight to drug development teams. I’ve learned to watch for note taking in the meeting as a signal of significant information. When the pens come out, something important has been said. I can gauge my own impact by whether or not anyone writes down what I say.

For the note taker, the act of recording promotes active listening. Without making the effort, it’s all too easy to just follow the flow of presentations and discussion without being intellectually engaged. Synthesizing the information into a set of useful notes requires another stage of processing beyond simple understanding. Certainly it enhances the ability to recall and present the discussion later on. The fact that Gates didn’t have a computer makes him seem almost naked in the room. With nothing besides blank paper in front of him, he had to be focused on the meeting, not scanning and sorting the hundreds of emails he certainly receives in the course of a day.

If the meeting is important enough to be physically present, then it should be important enough to be mentally present as well.

Rob’s other interesting observation was that Gates used a structured note taking system. All we learn is that he divided the page into quadrants and used the bottom area to record questions.

I’ve never been able to find any more information than this, but I assume that Gates picked up the Cornell system or some variant at some point in his life. Details on the Cornell system can be found at Cornell’s site. and there’s even a pdf generator to produce prepared templates for note taking.

The Cornell system is very simple, but was created to help college students record lectures and study for exams. A vertical line is made about a quarter of the way from the left margin. The large right side is for notes, the smaller left side is for “Cues”, questions based on the notes that can be used to clarify and recall the information in the notes. A bottom area of about 2 inches is for summarizing the notes on the page for easy reference.

I modified the Cornell system for my own use by using the cue area a place to record decisions and next actions. Taking Gate’s lead, I used the bottom for questions to pursue during or after the meeting- often topics or ideas to record later for my own use. I’ll freely admit that this sometimes becomes a distraction from active listening, but it keeps me in the meeting and away from email and social networking.

That takes care of the meeting. Once you’ve captured a few pages of notes, then what? First, even if the notes were never referenced again, the act of taking notes itself has been valuable in and of itself. But most of the time some processing is in order. And that simply means getting what’s useful into the other systems used to keep information available. Gathering next actions and appointments into lists and calendars, for example. Updating project summaries perhaps.

What I’ve personally find most useful is to file the notes in a project folder that comes out of the filing cabinet when I work on the project in the future. This kind of active note taking is a great aid to memory, vividly bringing back the logic and emotion of previous discussions and decision making. There’s the good and the bad, the “I told you so” notes and the “How could we have been so naive” notes.

Using meeting notes to bring the past vividly to mind leads to better decision making that always allowing the past to be a vague shadow that clouds our thinking.

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