Taking Notes: Because You Ain’t the Rain Man

By Jeremiah Wilson

I have presented to small and large groups, teaching simple skills and complex skills to smart (and not-so-smart) people. Those who are smart take more notes than those who are not. When I train my employees on how to present or coach, some take notes and some do not. I find this concerning, and suggest that you consider what changes you will encourage your employees to make in their note-taking.

Rain Man

Have you seen the movie Rain Man? It came out in 1988. It starred Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. It won four Oscars.

It’s about a man — played by Hoffman — who had a very high-functioning form of autism and could remember and learn an astounding amount of information.

A guy named Kim Peek from Salt Lake City is the real Rain Man. The movie was based on him. He was able to read books of more than 1,000 pages in less than an hour — and remember every word. By the end of his life, he could verbally repeat or write down — nearly word-for-word — the contents of 12,000 books (some of these were books he had read decades before). If you gave him a date — July 22, 1984, for example — he could tell you what famous people were born on that date, news events that occurred on that date, high and low temperatures in major U.S. and world cities on that date, and pretty much anything else you could ever want to know about that date. He could do this for any specific date in the last several hundred years. Peek could typically recall this information within about two seconds.

Most astounding to the teams of scientists who studied him, Peek could remember every word of presentations or lectures he attended. He was able to write down exactly verbatim what the speaker had said, several weeks after originally hearing the speaker.

This was a man who could literally remember everything. He was the real Rain Man. He didn’t need to take notes.

Here’s the problem: You are not the real Rain Man! And yet, you still don’t take notes!

Why Take Notes?

The quick answer is: because you and I are pretty dumb. We forget, and we forget quickly.

According to a Cornell University analysis, we lose information we don’t write down at an astounding rate:

  • 20 minutes after a presentation / training / lecture, 47 percent of the information is forgotten
  • One day after a presentation / training / lecture, 62 percent of the information is forgotten
  • Two days after a presentation / training / lecture, 69 percent of the information is forgotten
  • 75 days after a presentation / training / lecture, 75 percent of the information is forgotten

These rates of forgetfulness did not substantially increase or decrease even when a speaker was very good or very poor. In other words, you forget the same amount at the same rate, even if the speaker is exceptional and the material is riveting. It simply doesn’t matter. You forget if you don’t write it down; no matter how good the speaker is.

Note-Taking and Remembering

Some may say: “Well, I won’t actually review the notes so I shouldn’t take notes.”

First of all, that’s pretty short-sighted and ignorant. You should review your notes if you really want to learn. (Within 20 minutes after taking them, for maximum retention).

Second, that’s not the point. Studies show that just the act of writing notes — the actual writing itself — promotes information retention. Even if you never look at the notes again in your life, even if you went and burned them or flushed them down a toilet immediately after writing them, you would still remember more if you wrote them down.

After an extensive study, a group of psychology professors at Whittenberg College determined that “the actual taking of notes facilitates learning. Doing something during a lecture means the hearer is actively engaged in those activities that are essential to effective learning.”

Then this: Taking notes “stimulates recall.”

Another study, this time by the University of California Berkeley, agreed and found that taking notes “immeasurably” improves retention and the learning experience.

One professor even went so far as to call listening without taking notes “pointless.”

Another study (this is the last one, I promise) at Colgate University found that the best students take the most notes. Students who received an A grade took far more notes than students that received a D in the same class. These statistics held true regardless of the material / subject / professor or IQ of the student. Simply put: Taking notes equals success.

What You Miss By Not Taking Notes

Even if you have access to the original PowerPoint or the training outline, you will still miss out on important information if you don’t take notes. Thoughts you had will slip through the cracks of your consciousness if you don’t write them down.

Thomas Edison is probably the most experienced note-taker in the world’s history. His notebook contains five million pages of personal notes. Everything he heard and learned was written down immediately. How many of his 1093 patented inventions would have never become reality if he wouldn’t have been such a fastidious note-taker?

How to Take Notes

Hopefully, by now you see the utter and complete importance of note-taking. Your brain simply can’t remember stuff without writing it down. It’s not your fault — it’s just not possible. (Unless you are the Rain Man, which you are not). So, how do you take great notes?

Start writing. This is really the key. If you write something, you will be doing better than most people.

Write in bullet points or numbered lists. This helps your brain organize the information and will assist you later when you review your notes.

Write legibly. It will be difficult to review your notes if you can’t read them.

Review your notes within 20 minutes. This is very, very important. If you want to maximize your retention quickly scan your notes immediately after you write them.

Review the notes at least once a week for the next several weeks. Study your notes frequently. If it was important enough to write down, it’s important enough to read again.

Are You Taking Notes Yet?

So, while you will never be able to repeat every word in 12,000 books, or memorize everything you’ve ever heard in every presentation; you now know the secret to successful learning: note-taking.

Write this down: It is impossible to effectively listen without taking notes.

We would do well if we heeded the counsel of the first century Greek Philosopher Plutarch: “Learn how to listen and you will prosper.”

Jeremiah Wilson founded ContactPoint in 2001 with a patented device that records customer phone calls, allowing companies to hear what their customers hear. Prior to that, he specialized in logistics, customer service and sales training, and was assistant to the counselor of economics at the U.S. Embassy to the Czech Republic; he currently serves on the board of directors for various global companies.
Originally published: Nov 27, 2011

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