Time for Old-School Note-Taking – June 2018

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I sat in the back of the conference room as Margaret, a corporate trainer, was conducting a workshop for a group of financial professionals. She gave the audience a handout of her presentation and they were dutifully flipping through the booklet, page by page, at her command. She would say, “Okay, let’s all turn to page eight. As you can see, it says…” Then she would expound on the material for a while, before turning to the next page. By the end of the hour (which seemed like four hours), the audience had effectively been turned into zombies. At the end of her presentation, the zombies absentmindedly stuffed her hand-out into their folders and filed out of the room. There were bagels and more break-outs waiting for them. I considered putting them out of their misery by pulling the fire-alarm, but I didn’t want to spend a night in jail.

I have seen many surprised expressions when I tell clients I don’t use follow-along hand-outs for my sessions. After all, they think, printed material makes the experience seem more professional. And the audience walks away with something in their hand. A glossy hand-out puts the finishing touches on the presentation. I further surprise my clients by asking that attendees not be allowed to take notes on their laptops, they must hand-write notes with paper and pen. You can imagine clients of a certain generation freaking out at this archaic practice. They assume that hand-written notes could never out-perform typing, especially when typing allows for recording a greater volume of material? I’ve known people who can type so fast that they are actually able to record every word the speaker says; which is precisely the problem.

There is sound research as to why follow-along hand-outs and typed notes are the worst thing you can allow during training. Studies conducted at UCLA and Princeton have discovered that hand-writing charges up different parts of the brain than typing. It is precisely because writing cannot capture the same volume of material that the brain must decide which bits of information are most important. Instead of simply recording information, as with typing, hand-writing forces the brain to think. Hand-written notes are more concise, and they represent the most salient points of the material. In tests where students attending a lecture were given either pen-and-paper, or a laptop, those that typed their notes (hence, capturing a higher verbatim count of content), actually tested lower in comprehension, retention. More importantly, they also tested lower in conceptual understanding. Great presentations are about more than understanding and remembering the material. You want your staff to use the information to create positive changes and growth within the organization. It appears that typing notes doesn’t foster such growth.

The process of writing engages more of the brain’s senses. There is a strong connection between engaging in a tactile exercise and increased comprehension and retention. The motion of writing is tactile. Typing, while being a movement of the hands, doesn’t qualify as a tactile experience, so it doesn’t provide the same mental benefits as writing. Also, because writing is slower than typing, it forces the brain to slow down and thoroughly absorb the information; rather than simply allowing the words to pass directly from the ear to the keyboard. Typing prohibits thinking about the content.

At first, researchers thought that the students who tested higher in understanding and retention simply reviewed their notes before the test. After all, frequency of exposure to information is helpful. To check this, lectures were delivered with some students writing and other typing; but, immediately after the lecture, all the notebooks and laptops were taken away; allowing for no review of the material later. When tested a week later, those that took hand-written notes posted scores that were twice those of the typers. Because hand-writing requires us to take the speakers words and make them our own, whatever we write becomes stickier. Also, when we reform someone else’s words into our own hand-written thoughts, we avoid simply parroting words onto paper. We instead create thoughts of our own; thoughts that extend beyond the material being delivered. This means you can write notes, never review them once, and still do better than people who type.

As for follow-along hand-outs, if you just shove them into people’s hands and have them read along as you cover information, you create the same dulling effect on the brain. There are no sparks of realization, no reforming of ideas; just listening and nodding. Frankly, every time I see an audience with hand-outs, they are looking down at them 90% of the time. Hand-outs are a great reference tool, but they should be given after the presentation, as a companion to hand-written notes. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that, once they put a handout into a folder in their drawer, they never look it again. If we aren’t going to take the time to review material, shouldn’t we engage in a practice that allows the information to stick in our memory better in the first place?

Many people say they prefer laptops over notepads because typing is more convenient. This is true. It is also true that taking a diet pill is a lot more convenient than exercising. Just ask all the people who take diet pills and still struggle with weight gain. There is a reason why some practices are more difficult than others; it is because something worthwhile takes work. Others say that typed notes are more easily shared with others. Again, this is true. It is more of a hassle to scan notes and e-mail them. And that would matter if anyone ever shared their notes. Even if they did, shared notes are of little use. Someone’s recollection of a presentation doesn’t do much for you.

To be honest, I hate writing notes as much as the next person. There are also days when I don’t feel much like exercising. But, if I want my mind to be as toned as my muscles, I’ve got to get my brain to the gym. And that means pulling out pen-and-paper.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

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