I try to tell this story before every talk I give, but if there's a time crunch I leave it out. I should probably never leave it out, since it's one of the most important lessons on remembering I ever learned:
Years ago I had the opportunity to attend classes for a day at Harvard Law School. A friend of mine was a student there, and she invited me for a visit. So we're at the morning lecture in this huge amphitheater, we're sitting at these long, curved wooden desks set in tiers, exactly like you've seen in the movies. Nobody had a laptop or a tablet because laptops hadn't been invented yet, let alone digital tablets.
The professor is talking rapidly, giving information, legal theory, opinions, all this data. And sometimes she's calling on students, and they're answering, and all this good perspective is happening on the data, and I realize that the students are just sitting there.
I opened my notebook and wrote, "Why isn't anybody taking notes?" and slid it over to my friend. She wrote back, "You listen." Underlined.
And it was like, donngg. Epiphany.
I remembered back to my first job as a newspaper reporter. Sometimes a source would talk so fast you couldn't write it all down, even in the rudimentary shorthand most of us used. Since exact quotes were important, especially if the person was a public official, I'd shift from writing mode to
listening mode. (The picture is supposed to suggest 'listening' because of the headphones. Best I can do right now.) I remember feeling my attention sharpening, as my brain focused on absorption. Then I'd race off as soon as the interview was over and write down whatever relevant words might have escaped my pen.
Sitting in that Harvard classroom, I realized that when you're taking notes, it's almost like you're too busy writing words to really absorb what's being said. Since then, I take far fewer notes in any listening / learning situation, and guess what? Right! I retain more. Usually I make notes afterward, and that reinforces my recall.
So, for the next class, workshop, or conference session you attend, try doing the same. Relax, listen, and write half a page of notes later—just the main highlights. Let me know how it works for you, OK?
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