Semantic note-taking


Early in my career,1 I learned a particular approach to taking meeting notes. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about this over the years; here’s my attempt to explain the approach and why it’s effective.

I call this “semantic note-taking2 based on the two main actions:

This document is my own work: all opinions, interpretations, hypotheses are my own. But I can’t take credit for the approach: I learned this implicitly by mirroring what my coworkers were doing. Please blame me for any bad advice; any positive outcomes, credit to the giants on whose shoulders I have stood.

Wherefore meeting notes?

There’s different reasons to have a meeting, some of which are (as the meme goes) really reasons to send e-mails. There’s also meeting types where semantic note-taking isn’t an appropriate approach.3

The meetings where semantic note-taking shines involve many-to-many, back-and-forth communication. A weekly team roundtable, where we update each other on recent incidents and project progress.4 A working session between two teams, to establish background and decide on an approach. A horizontal summit, discussing how different groups have handled similar problems.

The goal of this kind of meeting is to build a shared understanding. But the process matters too: What did we conclude? What information did we use? What values did we apply? Notes-as-an-artifact record the answer to these questions; and if done right, the process of taking notes can help answer them.

Recording meaning

I start semantic note-taking for a meeting by saying:

I volunteer to take meeting notes. But I’m not a transcriptionist, so I’m going to write down what I hear, not what you say. I’m sharing the meeting notes right now- if I’m misrepresenting you, please say something to make sure we’re all on the same page!

This distinction – “what I hear, not what you say” – is the semantic part. I’ve found this makes me more engaged in meetings where I’m taking notes: I’m focused on active listening, going from ears to brain to fingers, rather than “just” transcribing.5

But human language is an imperfect conveyor of thoughts6. This is where the note-taking process matters: we want to set up an environment where, in the moment, we detect and discuss misunderstandings. Without judgment – recognizing up-front that misunderstandings are possible, that the record reflects only one understanding, and that our shared goal is to reflect that inside and outside everyone’s heads.

In addition to the above, I say:

I’m probably going to have comments, and I have a hard time typing and speaking. Can someone be ready to trade off note-taking with me?

and wait for (or solicit) a volunteer.

“Note-taker” and “participant” are not discrete roles; I assume everyone is at the meeting to contribute to the discussion. Explicitly preparing to trade-off makes sure the note-taker’s contributions don’t get missed, and helps onboard more people into the semantic note-taking pool.

More mechanics

The above are – I think – the important bits. If you want more (less important) details, here’s some other things I think contribute to effective meeting notes.



The resulting notes look something like this:

Future agenda items:

2178-04-08: Temporal cabal weekly

2178-04-01: Temporal cabal weekly


If you’ve been my coworker, and you’ve thanked me for my notes: You’re welcome! Now it’s your turn!

If you have comments or suggestions – or if you want me to do this (and more) at your company – drop me a line.

Thanks to Meg, Reed, John, and Murali for reviewing various drafts of this.

  1. I started as a Site Reliability Engineer, i.e. a software-engineer/sysadmin hybrid, and moved into software engineering after a few years. This advice may not apply if you’re in another field– I hear lawyers don’t always want things written down. ↩︎

  2. Or “SREmantic note-taking”, reflecting how I learned it: this kind of note-taking was the norm among the Google SRE teams I worked in and with. Years later I was in a meeting with another former SRE who I hadn’t worked with…and we jumped into the same habits, without coordinating. But it’s not just for SREs. ↩︎

  3. I don’t do semantic note-taking for 1:1s, either because I want them to be “off the record” or because the procedure is too invasive / formal. In meetings that are mostly unidirectional meetings, like daily standups or presentations, I don’t think semantic note-taking results in useful outcomes or artifacts. And some discussions warrant more privacy than this note-taking style provides; I recently took part in a meeting held under the Chatham House rule, with good reason. There’s no universal rule! ↩︎

  4. The “production meeting” was, and is, an important part of the SRE team schedule. With everyone involved in regular on-call shifts, we need a forum for discussing updates / changes / events, not just hearing about them. ↩︎

  5. In college, I heard advice to take notes on paper instead of on a computer– with the claim that doing so forces you to listen more carefully, and decide which things are important. Saying this at the start of the meeting reminds me to actively listen even when typing. ↩︎

  6. Unlike the tines, whose vocalizations are their thoughts! ↩︎

  7. For a few years Murali Suriar and I were counterparts on an intercontinental SRE team, and usually volunteered as note-takers at our weekly meetings; I learned this process in large part by trying to match him. On which point: practice makes perfect holds here too! ↩︎

  8. The small-scale structure, beyond each top-level bullet, isn’t very specific. Sometimes I put a reply in a nested bullet, sometimes in a bullet at the same level. I’m not sure how I make this decision! Whatever seems to best capture the train of thought. ↩︎

  9. This was one of John Truscott Reese’s “hobbyhorses” (sense 3): “Use unambiguous identifiers for people in writing.” That was usually the local-part, i.e. before-the-@ of an email address. When Google Docs added “people cards,” I switched to using those, which helped me break a bad habit of calling people by their username. ↩︎

  10. Again: this meeting format is not for all situations – there are good reasons to have meetings without attributing particular points. I try to record speakers so I can remember who to credit for suggestions; but in other cases other practices are better. ↩︎