Anh Dao Pham shares pro tips on developing the most underrated skill that makes a world of difference: note-taking.
- Why note-taking is a powerful differentiator
- The four-hour investment that ends up saving hundreds of hours
- How to synthesize your notes for maximum impact
Anh Dao Pham, VP of Product & Program Management at Edmunds.com, has successfully led technical projects for two decades at start-ups and major corporations. In her book Glue: How Project Leaders Create Cohesive, Engaged, High-Performing Teams, Anh vividly brings compassionate, positive, nimble leadership to life, demonstrating with actionable guidance, the power of caring and connection to inspire outstanding results.
Anh lives with her husband and two children in Los Angeles, California.
- Book: Glue: How Project Leaders Create Cohesive, Engaged, High-Performing Teams
- Website: GlueLeaders.com
- Book: Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee by Shannon Lee
- Book: On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (A Memoir of the Craft) by Stephen King
- Book: On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
- TED Talk: Derek Sivers: How to start a movement
Anh, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Anh Dao Pham
Thank you so much for having me back, Pete.
Well, I’m excited to chat, and I think this may be the shortest follow-up interview we’ve ever had with a guest because you teased note-taking. I asked, listeners said, “Yes, yes, yes” numerous times, so we’re back, we’re talking note-taking, and I’m excited.
Anh Dao Pham
I’m excited, too. I’m always thrilled when people tell me they’re excited about note-taking because I always feel like I’m such a geek when I talk about it, but it is such an important skill so I’m so delighted that some of your listeners were interested in this topic, and I’m hoping that we give them what they want.
Oh, me, too. And I thought we might start with, I know you use jingles to celebrate and commemorate things, any recent jingles that have tickled you and/or your teammates?
Anh Dao Pham
I haven’t written a jingle recently but I did write a very short “Roses are red, violets are blue” for you here.
Anh Dao Pham
Just two, just so that…a couple here. First,
“Roses are red, violets are blue
Hello there, Pete,
I’m happy to see you.”
I thought it was nice for us to be together again, so thank you for that. And then the second for your note-taking crew,
“Roses are red, violets are blue
note-taking is awesome
And so are you.”
So, hopefully, everybody gets excited at this point about note-taking.
That’s right. And heartwarming. All right. Okay, Anh, you mentioned in the last conversation that note-taking is your superpower. Can you tell us what’s super about it and why should professionals spend time working on this skill?
Anh Dao Pham
Well, note-taking has a ton of advantages. I feel like it’s one of the most underrated skills that we just don’t ever think about investing in. And, for me, it’s been so important to my career that I’d call it the cornerstone of my career. It’s like that one skill that, whenever I talk to people, I say, “You really have to think about note-taking,” and they’re always like, “Yeah, yeah, Anh, that sounds great but I may be not that interested.” But, to me, there’s really a few different benefits.
The first is people’s perception of you, and this is something that I don’t think people think about, but if you’ve, in particular, been in any sort of leadership position where you’re facilitating a meeting or having a discussion with people, and they see you taking notes and you’re typing, and you type slowly, their perception of you is not that you’re necessarily the smartest person.
And this is something that I feel like goes unspoken, but if you watch somebody typing, and they’re like pecking at the keyboard, you might perceive that they’re not as intelligent as they actually are. And that’s, I don’t think, an accurate representation in any way but it does affect people’s perception, in particular, if you’re facilitating a meeting and you’re taking notes slowly, and you’re slowing down the entire meeting.
Their perception of you is not that great. And so, I think mastering good note-taking is important just to make sure that people have a certain amount of respect for you when you’re doing your job if you’re taking notes.
The second is, at least for me, note-taking has been something that’s really made my learning process efficient. So, one of the things that I do, I do religiously in all of my meetings, is take notes. Whether or not I’m going to publish them or not, I take notes. And, for me, it just crystallizes my learning on things so it’s a part of my learning process.
And I started taking notes when I was in college. I was a math major and I was pretty lazy in summary cards. You don’t think of mathematicians as lazy but we kind of are. We’re looking for the most efficient way to do things, or maybe we’re advocates of efficiency is a better way to put it. But I was also a very slow reader. I just couldn’t go through textbooks. And anytime I was studying for a course and you had to read multiple chapters in the textbook, I just couldn’t get through that material.
And I had stumbled upon an article about note-taking, and they said, basically, if you take notes in some sort of structured format, then it improves your recall ability dramatically. And so, what I did was I just started taking notes in outline format, which is like a really traditional way to do it, in all of my lectures, and it was so effective when I was in college that I actually stopped buying the textbooks, like I didn’t read them.
Oh, there you go.
Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, I went to lectures, I took good notes, and then I reviewed the notes, and most of the time, the professors would cover the material that was needed from the textbook in their lectures. And so, if I took good notes, I didn’t actually need to purchase the textbook anymore. So, after a couple of quarters, I just stopped altogether, so it saved me a ton of money, and I did well in those courses. I did pretty well.
I was at UCLA, and I got a pretty decent GPA coming out of college. So, it was really, really effective for me and has, to this day, been one of the reasons why people often compliment me on my memory. They’re always like, “You have such a great memory.” It’s like, “No, actually, I just spend a lot of time processing the information through note-taking, and that crystallizes my learning in a way that I feel like other people who were not participating as much, will have that as an advantage.”
That’s cool. And in your book Glue, on the chapter about note-taking, you mentioned that when you are consistently taking notes and sending them out, you’re really effectively cementing the impression of being a subject matter expert to those that you’re sending the notes to. Can you tell us about that?
Anh Dao Pham
That’s right. Absolutely. I see note-taking as a way to actually get informal power, and so I tell people that information is power. And when you capture information and you send it out and distribute it, you start to become seen as a subject matter expert on the information that you’re putting out there. There’s a misconception that you capture information and some people will capture information and hoard it as a source of power, but to me it’s actually the opposite.
If you think about, let’s say, reputable newspapers or content sites, the reason that people see them as an expert is because they put their content out there. And then when people think of a topic or a question, they know where to go for that information, and note-taking happens in the same way. So, if you’re the person who consistently is taking notes and then sending them out, and they’re good notes, then the people will start to see you as that person who knew this information, publishes information, and a place that they can go to get the information.
And that shifts the dynamic from somebody who’s just sort of a bystander in a meeting to somebody who actually holds information and is somebody who has a certain amount of power and influence in the situation.
Well, now my brain is going to Bob Cialdini who endorsed your book. Kudos.
Anh Dao Pham
He’s one of my favorites. We were delighted to have him on the show when we finally got him. So, anyways, I’m thinking about the tools or principles of influence – reciprocity. I’m just thinking about how many times folks have been able to miss meetings either because they just want to save some time, or they really had some other obligations going on, and they were able to look to your notes to really save the day.
And so, I’m thinking, over your career, you’ve done that for many people many times, and I would hope that that gives you a little bit of sway when it’s time for you to ask for some help or some favors or some assistance.
Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, I would agree with that a hundred percent. The principle of reciprocity, I cannot even say that word, reciprocity is another thing that I talk about in the book, and also think a lot about in my career. And the interesting thing about that principle is that it’s not about giving something to get in that specific moment. It’s about establishing a pattern of giving and giving that benefit to other people so that at the time that you go to them at a later date, they actually are able to reciprocate and to provide something back to you because they’ve had that good feeling from you if you’re giving them something.
And I get this all the time, “Oh, I miss the meeting. Thank you so much for the recap. I was able to catch up.” In fact, oftentimes, the notes are way more efficient than being in the meeting. In particular, if you don’t need to be an active participant in the meeting to have the discussion but you need to understand what the outcome is, the notes are tremendously helpful.
I’ve had times before where, as an example most recently, one of our legal team members was asked a question, and he was searching through all of his documentation for anything about a particular discussion, and he said, “The most helpful information I found was actually from this recap that Anh took.” And I went back and looked at the notes, I was like, “I don’t remember this discussion at all. I’m so glad that we wrote it all down.”
And office settings often, in particular when you’re moving very fast, there isn’t a lot of things, there aren’t a lot of people who actually document things. And so, when you start doing that, it becomes often the system of record for whatever the discussion was that happened, and it helps all the people thereafter, either in the moment because they missed it, in some sort of a reminder capacity, like, “I can’t remember exactly what we talked about. I remember we covered this at some point.” Or, even very much later, like through this legal inquiry, some indicator of what was actually discussed and why we did it.
That’s beautiful. Well, shifting gears now into the how, you mentioned that in some ways, just your sheer typing speed is foundational. Can you speak to that?
Anh Dao Pham
Yes, typing speed is extremely important. Actually, out there, there are studies that talk about note-taking and how taking notes with a pen and pencil is actually more effective in terms of your ability to remember things. I actually believe that that’s kind of bunk but there are studies about that. I think the active, actually, taking information and then participating in it, that actually crystallizes things.
If you’re in an office setting, I would argue that typing is the equivalent of doing that pen and paper activity as long as you’re actually participating. But in order to be able to participate, you can’t be slowed down by your own skill to capture the information, so typing speed is extremely important. And I always tell people, if I notice them not typing as fast as I think that they can, to spend some time investing in themselves in that typing speed.
We always have people complain about how they don’t have enough time in their day, and if you spend a lot of time actually responding to emails or reading things or writing memos, this is a place where you can actually improve your efficiency significantly, and it doesn’t actually take that much investment. When I actually started typing, I was in high school, actually my transition from high school to college, and I attempted to go and get a job at a temp agency.
And at the time, I think I was around 18 or so. I got tested for my typing speed, and I came in at something like 40 words per minute. I’d never actually put in a concerted effort to improve my typing speed. And the people who were helping with the hiring said frankly to me, “Hey, this is just not going to cut it. Nobody is going to hire you for a temp position if you don’t get this typing speed up.”
And at the time I went home, and I happen to find a really old spiral-bound typing speed book that my mom had used when she was younger. And I picked it up, and I did a handful of drills, and I think I spent maybe three or four hours or so just doing a handful of drills. And then a couple days later, I went back and took the test again, and my typing speed was up to 60 words per minute.
So, it wasn’t actually that big of an investment. And if you think, if you currently type 45 words per minute and you can increase your typing speed to 60 words per minute, that’s like a pretty significant improvement in your efficiency, and it doesn’t take that much to invest in yourself to get that typing speed up. So, I feel like everybody should take a moment to do that if they haven’t already.
It’s funny, because when I say this or when people read the book, they’re like, “I went and tested myself, like right after I read that chapter.” And they’re always reporting their typing speed to me, I was like, “Great. Great. Do that.”
“Thank you.” You’ve seen a lot of these unsolicited reports. Well, you’re bringing some fond memories back. I remember I found a transcriptionist and he was so gung-ho. I think it was in one of those contractor platforms, like Fiverr or Upwork or something, and he said, “I’ve already started on it, and you can see.” And then he showed the Google Document which he was transcribing quickly, I was like, “Okay, there you go. That’s impressive.”
As well as he had a video in his portfolio, he was like, “Look at me on TypeRacer.com,” which is a website I’ve been to, to see, “Sure enough, you can type very fast.” And that’s impressive, and not just when you’re hiring a transcriptionist but for any number of roles. And I think there was an episode of “The Apprentice” back in the day.
I think maybe Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, why I remember this, maybe because it left an impression. He was typing so slowly, I was shocked.
Anh Dao Pham
And didn’t it affect your perception of him?
Well, it did, and I already knew, like he’s a fraudster criminal, and it made it worse, and he can’t type fast. So, it makes an impression. I just want to mention, so right now, AI is so hot right now, and the ability for automated transcription to occur. What are your thoughts on that? Does that make it less important to be able to type quickly?
Anh Dao Pham
No, I think that, at the end of the day, typing is a way of processing information, so it depends on what you’re trying to use it for. Like, as an example, if you’re going to transcribe a podcast and you’re putting it out there because you want the content out there, then I think there’s absolutely no harm in doing some sort of automated transcription. You’re not actually trying to learn the material or do something with it. You’re just trying to make it available.
But, for me, the main reason I like to do note-taking or that I practice it religiously is because it does help me learn. And so, if you’re taking advantage of a tool to do that work for you, you actually lose out on the benefit of processing the information. When I think about typing and taking notes, the reason that it helps improve your memory is that you’re processing information multiple ways.
So, let’s say you’re in a meeting and you’re taking good notes, you’re listening to the information that’s coming in, and then you’re participating in the meeting, so, obviously, you’re likely there because you have some role to play. So, you’re participating in having some discussion, that’s like two ways, “I’m listening. I’m talking.” That’s another way to process the information.
And then if I actually write it down, I’m processing it a third way. So, all in the span of a one-hour meeting, I’ve now triple-processed the information. And it’s not just about writing the information down, but if you actually take the time to reorganize the information or write it in your own words, then you’re processing it another time. So, you’re like taking in the information and then outputting it in a way that is in your own words so that you can confirm that understanding.
So, all in that span of time, if you’re using your fast note-taking abilities and processing all this information, that information is going to get crystallized in your brain in a way that other people who are just listening or just speaking and not taking in all those different activities at the same time are not going to have to their advantage. So, that’s why you’ll come out of the meeting and learn this information so much more quickly.
All right. So, let’s say we have invested just a few hours in our typing speed, and it’s gone way up. Cool. Tremendous return on investment there. So, then let’s zoom in. We’re in an actual meeting, we’ve got our laptop, and our fast typing skills. I’m wondering if folks, right from the get-go, are thinking, “Is this even appropriate for me to whip out the laptop and be clanking away? Is this something that’s going to be distracting, annoying? Is this just more for junior people?” Can you talk to us about any resistance folks might have in the moment?
Anh Dao Pham
It’s really funny because I used to work in a startup called Opower, and at the time, I was the first person there who was a program manager. I was director of program management, and I was in charge of hiring other people for my team. And when I put out the job description, we put out an exercise. And in the exercise, it was just a handful of questions that the job applicants had to answer in advance. And one of the questions I’d put on there was, “How fast do you type?”
And the funniest thing about that question was it was the most controversial and telling question on the pre-application. Some people would write back, and the answers were so funny.
“It shouldn’t matter how fast I type.”
Anh Dao Pham
Exactly. Like, we did. We actually got responses like that, like, “This is not an admin job” was one of the responses, or, “I’m a hunt and pecker,” which was so funny to respond that way, but people were actually offended about this question, that they felt like it was beneath them. And, to me, that’s really telling when it’s like you should have the humility to do this work if it needs to be done on your project. So, if you’re thinking you’re above that, in any job, in anything that makes you better at your job, you should be willing and want to do.
And so, I feel like if there’s an ego there about it, you’re just shooting yourself on the foot by not taking advantage of this particular skill or this opportunity to do that. But I do see resistance because there is a certain amount of ego with it. Now, I would say, though, that most of the time the ego is coupled with a lack of skill. So, it’s like, “Why would you push back on it if you could do it?” It just seems like an odd combination. So, we do see some of that resistance.
Now, in the scope of actual meetings, and I come from a project management background but now I also do product management work, and I’m on the executive team, and I still go into meetings and take notes. And you would think, like, “Hey, as Anh moves up in her career, she’s going to do this less.” It’s like, no, actually, I’m not because, again, I think it becomes a very valuable resource, it’s important for my learning process, and people really appreciate it. So, why wouldn’t I continue to do that?
And people have come to know that I do this. They will rely on this skill, sometimes maybe too much, but they’ll rely on this skill, and this is something they can count on with me if they’re not able to attend a meeting, it’s like, “Hey, are you attending? Could you share your notes with me?” That’s like a huge benefit for them and it’s something that I think I’m always going to do.
Okay. That’s good. And no one has ever said, “Hey, cut it out,” or looked annoyed, like, “Ugh, your keyboard noise is such a distraction and annoying us, Anh.”
Anh Dao Pham
No, actually. And I do have long nails so I do clank a little bit on the keyboard. Now, if I’m in a meeting or on a Zoom or something, and you can hear the clanking, then I’ll mute myself so that it doesn’t happen. The only thing I would say is if you’re maybe on a one-on-one situation, and you’re sitting there, staring at your computer while you’re taking notes, or you’re concentrating so much on that, that’s not a great situation.
Some of those smaller form meetings, you might want to pay more attention to the conversation, or you might at least give a prerequisite or preamble before you actually start taking notes, like, “Hey, I’m going to be taking notes, but the reason I’m taking notes is because I’m listening to you so intently, and I want to make sure that I’m capturing this information.”
So, you can give that up front so that people know that that’s important to you for the purposes of this meeting. I’ve actually participated in interviews with companies before where the interviewer, it was just me and him, and he said, “Hey, this is a part of my process, so just know when I’m staring intently into the camera, I’m taking notes and it’s not you. It’s because I’m really trying to listen and make sure that I captured everything.”
So, I think you can phrase it in such a way, with whoever you’re meeting with, to let them know that this is an important part of the process, and that’s why you’re doing it, and that should cut out any hesitation for you taking on that task.
Okay. So, we got the typing speed up, hesitations are behind us, we’re in the moment, what do we actually do?
Anh Dao Pham
So, there’s a couple phases in the book I break this down on note-taking. In the very beginning of a project, oftentimes, you’ll start a project and not actually know what’s going on. And so, if you’re in a meeting and you’re trying to facilitate and you’re trying to take notes, sometimes that’s very difficult. And so, I call this phase the fake-it-till-you-make-it phase.
And the idea here is you’re listening intently, you’re asking questions when you don’t understand things, but you’re trying not to slow down the discussion or the meeting. And so, one thing you can do is if there are things that you really need clarification on, you can sort of jot them down. Sometimes I’ll create my own private note section, like, “Note to myself: Ask about this later because I don’t want to slow this down.”
But in the span of the meeting, what you want to do is try to capture the most salient points, the most important things, and there’s really only a couple of categories. One is, “What are the key decisions that are being made?” And then, two is, “Are there any sort of follow-up items or action items? And who’s going to be responsible for those?”
And in a meeting where you don’t exactly know what’s going on, and sometimes maybe they’re even using jargon that you don’t fully understand, the most important thing is to write down accurately what is being stated. And if you’re unsure, you can always prompt somebody, like, “Hey, I heard this word. It sounds like a decision was made. Is that true? If so, can somebody just restate the decision for clarity?”
And when you do that, it actually helps the meeting because, oftentimes, people will say, “Okay, great.” They’ll have a discussion and they’ll seem to have come to some sort of consensus, and then they’ll move on, but nobody actually stated the decision at the very end. And sometimes when you do that, and prompt, like, “Hey, I heard a decision or I think we made a decision. Can somebody state that?” It will actually clarify that maybe something was missed or maybe somebody had a slightly different understanding of the decision, so you’re actually helping the process by asking that question.
And then once it gets stated in a clear enough way, you can say, “Okay, so I heard this is the decision,” state the decision, and then write it down. So, you’re sort of capturing the most important things. And that, to me, is sort of the fake-it-till-you-make-it stage. And if there is jargon that is being used in that state where you don’t fully understand what they’re saying, you just make sure to repeat back, “This is what I heard you say. Is that right?” And then write that down in the way that they said it.
It’s not as important in this phase that you understand the notes as it is that the people who are in the meeting understand the notes and what’s next. And so, there you just want to capture exactly what they said, and a note to yourself to learn and understand it later. And then you can follow up with the person, ask those questions to make sure that you fully understand what you’re sending out. Don’t send out things that you don’t understand. Capture them and then make sure you understand them before you send it out because that’s how you’re going to get the benefit, ultimately.
So, that, to me, is like really the first phase. And then, over time, what you want to do is sort of graduate to a more, I’d say, mature note-taking phase where you’re then sort of going through the process, participating in the meeting, and then taking notes but organizing the information as you’re going along. And when we talk about note-taking, people ask me all the time, like, “Well, what’s the secret?” I was like, “Well, I don’t just take notes. I’m actually participating and then I’m summarizing the information in my own words.” And there’s a lot of benefits to that.
The first is really that when people speak, it doesn’t always make for good notes. If you capture everything verbatim, there’s uhms and ahhs, there’s pauses, there’s twists and turns, they might repeat themselves five times. It doesn’t make sense for you to write everything that everybody is saying. What you want to do is capture what the point of that discussion was. So, take a moment to sort of rephrase it for yourself in the most concise way, and then type that down.
And then, as you’re going through the meeting, you’re participating. And if you have read my book Glue, there’s actually two chapters next to each other. It’s the note-taking chapter, and then the next chapter is about synthesis. And I think, when you’re doing really successful note-taking or good note-taking, you’re actually practicing both skills at the same time. And so, note-taking is sort of the act of writing down the information and organizing it, but how do you actually organize the information? And there’s a few different ways to do it, through different techniques of synthesis.
And the simplest way of synthesis is to actually just try to sequence things. So, if somebody’s describing a process or a plan to do something, you’re kind of like sitting there and trying to write these things down in order. So, as people are talking through it, it’s like, “Okay, we needed to do step one.” “Okay, great. I captured that.” Then, suddenly, they’re talking about step two, and then it’s like, “Oh, well, actually, there’s something that needs to happen before that.” So, then you sort of reorganize that information and sequence it in a way.
Think of it as like I talk to my mom about recipes that she cooks for Vietnamese food, and sometimes she gives those steps in all different orders. Like, she doesn’t have anything written down because a lot of Asian cooks don’t. They don’t have recipes. They just kind of feel their way through. And when she conveys the information to me for how to cook something, I step back and go, “Okay, I heard you said this, this, and this,” and I’m like writing those down as if they were instructions that I could follow later. And that is a way to sort of synthesize the information.
So, when you’re taking good notes, you’re doing that. You’re not sort of just capturing anything as it comes along because then your steps may not be all out of order. You’re actually synthesizing them into something that’s useful and structured. And that, to me, is sometimes hard to do, but if you practice it over time, you get really good at it.
And when you’re doing it as well, it also helps you identify if there are gaps. So, in the book, I give an example about cooking chicken pho. It’s a recipe, and my mom’s giving me these instructions, and she says, like, “Hey, you’ve got these vegetables, you need to chop them up. And then you need to do X, Y, and Z.” And at the end, after I write it all down, I realize, “I didn’t do anything with these vegetables that I chopped up. What do I do with them?”
But if I didn’t sequence the information out, I wouldn’t necessarily realize that the vegetables didn’t go anywhere. And so then, it’s like, “Hey, mom, I missed the vegetables. Where do they go?” It’s like, “Okay, well, you add them at this point in time.” It’s like, “Okay, let me slot that in where it needs to happen.” And so, that active synthesis really helps you make sure that you fully understand the information.
So, when you’re capturing the information and then, ultimately, sending out, that it’s like 100% accurate, and you’ve helped identify potentially gaps in the information that you’ve plugged in as a part of that discussion.
So, sequence is fantastic in terms of, “How do I do this thing?” and in the course of a meeting, we say, “Oh, we should do this.” “Oh, but first I guess we got to do that.” “Oh, but that’s really going be contingent on this.” And so then, that really is super value added in terms of we had a jumble of discussion, and then what’s coming out the other side is, “Oh, here are the six steps. One, two, three, four, five, six. You made it look easy, Anh. Cool.”
So, that’s one style or approach of synthesis is sequence, chronology. Are there any other key frameworks or schemas that are handy when it comes to synthesizing?
Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, another active synthesis that I describe in the book is I call it inference. And so, this is like a really simple technique where you try to collect multiple pieces of information, and then you try to extrapolate another piece of information out of that. So, one of the mistakes that you’ll make maybe early on when you’re even participating in meetings, regardless of whether or not you’re taking notes, is you just take statements at face value.
So, it’s like, “Anh’s going to go on vacation this week. Pete has Anh scheduled for a podcast this week.” Those are two pieces of information. Now, if you’re not thinking about them, you just write those two pieces of information down, but if you’re thinking about them, you realize, “Anh’s on vacation this week, and Pete’s got a podcast. Well, Anh’s not going to make that podcast and we need to reschedule it.” There’s an extrapolation that happens.
And sometime those seems super obvious but, when you’re in a meeting, and when you’re in a lot of meetings throughout the day, oftentimes people are only participating and thinking about their one piece of it. So, I might only think about my thing, you might only think about your thing, and nobody’s connecting the two dots together.
And so, the act of inferences take those pieces of information, and then if you dare extrapolate and make another statement, a conclusion based off of that, just to make sure that you understand what the result is. So, maybe in this specific example, we say, “Oh, Anh is not going to be there for the podcast so we’ve got to reschedule it.” And I might say, “Oh, no, no, no, Pete is so special that I’m going to come out of my vacation and I’m going to take this call with him so that I can be on this podcast.” And you’re like, “Okay,” and all worked out.
So, the extrapolation was incorrect in that statement, but we clarified something that was really important that everybody missed and nobody said it out loud.
Anh Dao Pham
And so, to me, that’s a great skill and it’s really simple. The one thing on that skill that you have to be okay with is getting things wrong. And I think in note-taking, in general, or any sort of synthesis, you have to be okay with getting things wrong and having people correct you, and it’s not until people have corrected you enough and you got it right in the way that you’ve written it down, that you know that you understand the material, so you have to get pass that, but I think the benefits are huge.
Certainly. And I think that can, over time, expose some themes and patterns in terms of, “Oh, okay, this person will make vacation exceptions for super important things,” or, “Does not ever want to be interrupted on their vacation.” And so, that’s a very narrow extrapolation or theme or pattern recognition.
And then, in a way, it’s even helpful for the individuals in terms of, “Oh, here’s how I’m communicating, and here’s what’s often missed. Okay.” And you mentioned that when you are taking your notes, what you want to record, the most critical things such as the decisions made and the action items, who will do what by when. To what extent do we want to share the key considerations of those decisions?
Because sometimes those conversations are quite meandering, and then they landed on a decision. And sometimes they’re quite clear, “Oh, this critically hinges upon four key inputs.” So, how do you think about note-taking in these environments?
Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, I’d say it’s kind of an elevation of note-taking. So, if you’re in the beginning, and you’re still just trying to keep up with the Joneses in your note-taking, then it’s fine to capture just the most salient points, meaning the key decisions and the action items. I think that’s like the minimum that you really want to capture in order for your notes to be useful to others.
But once you progress to being able to extrapolate and organize information in your note-taking, and, ideally, doing that in real time because you’re participating, then you do want to be capturing the why. And I think that is one of the biggest things that helps you actually remember the material, is understanding the why.
It’s very difficult to just understand or remember words verbatim unless they’re maybe in a song, or the alphabet, or you have some sort of moniker for them. But when you actually understand the underlying reason, you don’t actually have to necessarily understand or remember the outcome. You can kind of reason your way there, if that makes sense.
A similar example from memory was when I was in high school, I took the Calc BC test to see if I could get credit for my Calculus course. And our teacher had covered this concept called the trapezoid rule, which is a way to calculate the area of a particular shape through an integration, or through an integral, and he explained how it was actually put together.
So, when you actually do the trapezoid rule, basically what you do is you take a line of the curve, and then you split it into trapezoids, and then you add all the trapezoids together, and that’s how you actually come up with the total are below the curve. This is like me super geeking out on the math side of things. But when I got to the AP test for this calculus exam, the first thing on the test was this trapezoid rule, and I remembered coming out of it, and everybody was, like, “Oh, my gosh, does anybody here remember the trapezoid rule? Like, how could you possibly remember that?”
And it’s like, “Well, I remembered how he explained it to me. I remember that you had to actually create trapezoids, and I know how to calculate the area of a trapezoid so I just kind of was able to derive the formula as I was going through.” And I know that was such a geek example but it stuck with me so much because I remember, like, “Well, because he explained the why, and I understood how it worked, I didn’t actually have to remember the formula at the very end.”
And so, to your point, if you’re going through and you’re having these conversations, if you can capture the why, participate in the why, then you may not even need to remember the outcome because if somebody is asking, you can say, “Oh, well, I remember we talked about this and that, and this was good. And so, the conclusion must’ve been this.” And I think that that’s very powerful as well to have that information so that you can reason through those things.
That is really good. And I find that when I don’t have an understanding of a why, or the why is just nonsense to me, I have a hard time remembering anything associated with the conversation or anything there. So, that’s really insightful.
Anh Dao Pham
It’s like your brain almost discards the information. It’s like a superfluous piece of information, you’re like, “That didn’t make sense. It didn’t fit into the puzzle pieces of my brain, so I’m just going to kind toss it out.” And then once you truly understand that, whether or not you agree with it is a different question, but if you at least understand the reason that got you there, then, typically, you’re going to remember the answer.
Okay. And then any tips when it comes to shorthand, organization, or sending them out, or platforms?
Anh Dao Pham
I mostly advise people to use the tools that are most easy for them to use. You want to use what’s most comfortable for you. So, this is like a really simple example but at my office, we used to have computers in the room, in the conference rooms, for our meetings, and then you could also bring your laptop and plug it in.
And one of the things that I would do pretty regularly is I would bring up the conference room with a computer, and then put my notes documents up on the screen so that people could see it, but then I would actually take notes from my laptop. So, it was just projecting the information through one mechanism and taking notes from my laptop.
One time a person asked me, “Why do you do that?” I was like, “Well, I type much faster on my laptop because the keyboard is the keyboard that I practice on. The keys are a certain height. I’m just more comfortable there.” And it’s such a small tip but if you are much faster on your laptop, then go ahead and use that as advice.
And, similarly, if you’re very familiar with a particular word processing program, if you much prefer Word or Google Docs or something like that, use the mechanism that you think is going to be the fastest and easiest for you to use. Then if you send them out, you might want to translate them or post them somewhere in a shared document, depending on what your company uses, but I’d say when you’re at least capturing the information, use the device and tools that are most comfortable for you.
All right. And when you mentioned your book, when you send them out, you want to do so as promptly as possible.
Anh Dao Pham
Yes, you do because, honestly, things move so fast that the information may be invalid or have changed over time. So, if I sit too long sometimes on a recap, sometimes people have completed the action items and they’ve already come to slightly different conclusions. So, you want the information to go out as timely as possible, and you want it to be timely and accurate and concise if possible, and to get them to the broadest population that you can that’s relevant to them.
All right. Well, Anh, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about more of your favorite things?
Anh Dao Pham
I’d say the only thing that I wanted to reiterate is I think that, again, note-taking is a very learnable skill, and it’s one of the things that people don’t pay attention to, they don’t think about investing in, and I think that there are so many different benefits if you just invest a little bit more in yourself, that you’ll have. This is in your arsenal for the rest of your career, and reap those benefits.
And I feel like the only thing you need to get over is, if you don’t type very fast, and don’t practice this skill often, just to let your ego get out of the way, and spend a little bit of time, and know that it’s going to benefit you over the course of your career.
All right. Well, Anh, we spoke pretty recently but you mentioned that you did prepare some additional favorite things. So, lay it on us, how about another favorite quote?
Anh Dao Pham
So, recently, I was reading a book called Be Water, My Friend by Shannon Lee. It’s a book about the philosophies of Bruce Lee. And my favorite quote from the book is “The usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness.” And maybe this goes along with that sort of theme of getting out of your own way. One of the things that they talk about in the book is there’s a proverb about a person who is meeting a Zen master, and he’s talking about something, and his Zen master is trying to give him feedback but he’s not listening to anything.
And so, the Zen master takes tea and starts pouring it into a cup, and then the cup starts overflowing, and the person says, “The cup is overflowing. It can’t hold any more tea.” He’s like, “Well, how can you learn anything if your mind is already full.” And I love that quote because it reminds me, if I’m sort of struggling with something, maybe it’s because I have a preconceived notion or something, my mind is too full that it can’t receive the information to understand the truth.
And I feel like when I get stuck, I’ll often think about that, like, “Is there a way that I, again, could be looking at this differently or sort of letting go of some particular assumption or reservation that I have in order to get out of my own way?”
And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
Anh Dao Pham
Have you seen the TED Talk by Derek Sivers: How to start a movement?
You know, I think I have long ago.
Anh Dao Pham
It’s one of my favorites. I think it’s a two-minute TED Talk, really, really short. And what I love about it is it’s entertaining as well as it packs a punch of a message. And, basically, he shows a video of a person who’s sort of like dancing like a crazy person on a hill. It’s a hill with a bunch of people who were sort of sitting, maybe it’s like a picnic or a show or something.
And there’s one person who gets up, and he starts dancing. And then after he’s dancing for a period of time, then one second person gets up and starts dancing. And then just a few minutes later, all of a sudden, people swarm together and start dancing together. And he says, “Hey, we’ve started a movement.”
And the interesting thing about this is he says people think about leadership as the first person who actually started the movement, but, actually, it was the first follower who was the most impactful because the first follower joins that leader, and the quote is, “Without the first follower, the leader is just a lone nut.”
And I love that because it stresses the importance of being not necessarily the person who’s typically designated as leader, but a leader in a different capacity. And, in a way, I think note-taking is kind of similar to that. Sometimes you’re offering support in your role, and when you offer support, it offers a different kind of leadership. And the first follower is actually the person who helps create the movement. Without the second person, there never would’ve been a swarm of other people.
So, if you haven’t seen the TED Talk, I highly recommend it. It’s not exactly a study but the message packs a powerful punch.
Okay. And a favorite book?
Anh Dao Pham
I was thinking about different books. I read books in all different genres. And kind of in the note-taking theme, I actually have two favorite books on the topics of writing, and these were books that I read when I was writing Glue. The first is On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and it’s a book about writing nonfiction. He actually talks, too, about if you’re writing in business but you’re not a person who’s aspiring to be an author, how important it is to be able to express your words concisely. And I found that it was just such an impactful book, not long at all, but just packed a great message.
The second book on writing is Stephen King, an author that I’m sure everybody is familiar with, called On Writing. It’s more about writing fiction, but I think both of them just teach you that there are so much more to learn in the craft of writing. And while note-taking isn’t the same as writing a book, I think it just reminds you that there are ways that you can always improve on what you’re doing, and something that you’re doing every day on a daily basis in your jobs.
And a favorite tool?
Anh Dao Pham
It’s funny because I’ve been saying, “I really like typing so I like to do everything electronically,” but my favorite tool is actually Post-Its, Post-it notes. I love Post-it notes. When I have lots of tasks that I needed to do, I’ve got lots of Post-it notes all over my desk. In fact, you can see when I’m really busy because I’ll have lots of Post-it notes everywhere.
But I use them for facilitating meetings. If you’re doing sort of any in-person discussion, or any sort of brainstorming, or clustering exercises. I love all of that. If you’re doing timelines, it’s easy to plot things out in a timeline. Or, in a case where you maybe don’t want to take notes or you have the luxury of having people in person, and you want to sequence information. This is great. You can write a Post-it, you can move them around. It’s wonderful. I love them so much that people will joke sometimes that I must’ve invested in 3M.
Okay. And a favorite habit?
Anh Dao Pham
I read a lot. And I feel like people forget that they can read to get information. Probably not your listeners. I think maybe they do like to read, and you have a lot of guests who are authors, but one of the things I find so beautiful about today is that you can learn about almost anything you want to learn about because there are so many resources out there through videos, through blogs, etc. But I love reading books. I feel people gravitate now to online content for a lot of things, or short-term content, but I feel there’s nothing better than a really well-put together book.
And is there a key nugget you’re known for?
Anh Dao Pham
Outside of being a lover of note-taking and a lover of Post-its, in the book and the other things that we had talked about in the last podcast I did, people do talk to me a lot about this idea of not having to have a project plan when you’re a project manager. The other thing that I often get asked about is this methodology I introduced in the book about project management called CALM. And it means closely aligned, loosely managed.
And it’s a way of managing projects without managing them as hands-on, as typical project managers might. Through alignment and setting clear goals, and then giving people ownership over their respective tasks rather than trying to dictate and control everything. So, I get asked about that a lot.
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
Anh Dao Pham
I’d love it if folks could contact me through my website. It’s www.GlueLeaders.com. In there, you can find, again, all the links to any information about my book, this podcast when it’s available, as well as the last podcast that you had me on, Pete. So, thank you so much for the opportunity. And, yeah, if you’d like to reach out or have any other questions about note-taking or anything else in the book, I’d love to hear from you.
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
Anh Dao Pham
I’d say, at least with respect to note-taking, just try it. Just try it and, again, practice. It takes a lot of practice, and practice doesn’t actually make perfect. I feel like, as a person in my career, I’m almost looking for a way to progress, and I never have finished progressing. And so, I’d say practice and continue to strive to make yourself better because I think everybody has the capacity to do more and better as long as they put their minds to it.
All right. Anh, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and many good notes.
Anh Dao Pham
Thank you. I hope your listeners really enjoy this note-taking, and I’d love to hear from them. Thank you again for the opportunity, Pete.