We’ve designed note-taking as a core part of Clay. We’ve done this because anecdotal and scientific evidence demonstrates that remembering what matters to someone and how they are spending their time in their personal and professional lives is an integral component to developing a real, authentic, meaningful relationship with them! It’s difficult to gain compounding momentum in a relationship with another person if you must spend the beginning of every interaction remembering what you’ve already spoken to them about. Taking notes allows us to have richer conversations as we drive our relationships forward—it is a token of our commitment to being thoughtful to another person.
Taking good notes is a skill. Like any skill, it is highly personalized to your abilities and preferences, and you will develop your unique skill over time as you learn what works for you. However, we’ve identified some generalizable principles that help you be more thoughtful with your relationships and prepared for the next conversation. We’d love to share these principles with you in order to help you start a new (or catalyze an existing) habit of taking notes on people.
A caveat: we’ve built Clay around the ideas, principles, and processes listed here–prioritizing features that will let you get the most out of your people notes with sticky search, reminders and reconnect prompts, groups, delegated access, and much more. However, you can implement these suggestions across any type of note-taking system: from paper and pen to a professional CRM.
Before we share our system, we’d like do highlight three guiding principles as you develop a personal note-taking habit:
- A robust, scientific, organized note-taking system does you no good if you don’t end up using it because it’s too complicated, involved, or burdensome. Notes can only help you if you take them. A hurried and chaotic one line note you take is better than a structured note you never write down. Be honest with yourself, and adopt a system that you know you can keep up with over time.
- Note-taking often seems like a chore, but you can employ a helpful reframe—instead of thinking of taking a note as a task to do at the end of a meeting, think of taking a note as the beginning of your next meeting with someone. This serves two purposes: first, it allows you to see the benefit that the note will give you the next time you meet with this person. This is greatly energizing. Second, it encourages you to start thinking about meeting with that person again, increasing your likelihood to stay thoughtful with them in the short term.
- In general, default to writing down what you are likely not to be prompted to remember given the context of your relationship. For example, you should write down reminders about what your colleagues do for fun, but you don’t need to write down their role on a specific project—since you are working on that project with them, you know that already!
With those principles in mind, let’s dive in. We’ll cover our recommended structure for notes, what content to include, and how to create a habitual note-taking practice.
When it comes to breaking down how to think about note-taking for all the different people we meet or types of interactions we have, it can be helpful to start by reflecting upon some of your recent interactions. For example,
- Running into a close friend while shopping
- A 1-on-1 you have with your supervisor each month
- An important meeting with a noteworthy client
- Catching up with relatives the last time you were at home
While what you talked about with each person may vary, there are a few types of information they might have shared. What you choose to highlight in a note (and how you choose to highlight it) will vary based on a number of factors, which we’ve distilled into 3 spectra. Figuring out where your relationships land on these spectra (even roughly) can help you notate the right information. The spectra are as follows:
First, how well you know someone.
You’ll take notes on someone very differently based on the length of your relationship with them. When you know someone well, you likely don’t need to notate things about whey they are from, etc, because you already have that deeply stored in your memory. However, you’d likely need to write that down for a new work colleague.
You probably couldn’t forget a childhood best friend’s middle name if you tried—but you might struggle to recall a co-worker's partner’s name or where your neighbor went on vacation. Across hundreds of examples, this principle crystallizes: the better you know someone, the finer the details you want to remember become.
So, focus on dialing up or down the granularity of your notes based on how well you know someone, or think you will get to know someone over time. And, focus on adding more historical details for people you’ve just met vs. more notes on your conversation with people you’ve known a long time.
Second, how often you see someone.
The more frequently you interact with someone, the more likely it is that those bigger pieces of information about them are going to be top of mind naturally. In other words, if you see someone every week, you’d note changes or small updates you might forget, but, if you see someone every couple of months or years, you might want to take notes about big life changes instead.
For example, say you’re catching up with a relative at a wedding and they’re telling you that they’ve been stressed out lately since they’ve got to relocate for work but haven’t figured out when or how yet.
You can jot down a note on their work and home situation changing, and set a reminder to text them about it in a few months. Next time they are in town, you can ask them how their new home situation is, and how they are adapting to the new colleagues at work.
If you see someone every couple of weeks, you can note smaller pieces of their life that change more frequently: ideas they are thinking about, projects at home or work, etc.
Finally, how you know someone.
The last spectrum is how you know someone, meaning if your relationship is personal, professional, or both. This spectrum will mainly impact the content of your notes in the sense that you know what your colleagues do at work but perhaps not what they do for fun, and vice versa for personal friends. Note down what you are least likely to remember given your organic interactions with this person.
For example, you may know a lot about what your boss is thinking about from a work perspective, and you have that top of mind without jotting down a not. However, you don’t know as much about their hobbies or home life. Write those down!
People will move between these spectra.
As you’ve likely gathered, these spectra are loose categories. There is a lot of ambiguity, and a lot of gray area on where your relationships fit into each one- that’s why we use them directionally, and not as hard guidelines. They are only as useful as you find them to be.
Similarly, you’ll likely find that some of your relationships move around on the different spectra as time passes. For example, you may become close personal friends with a colleague. Or, you may chat with a friend less and less after you move cities. This will change how you take notes about them, and the types of conversations you have with one another
This is completely normal! Relationships necessarily change over time, and so will the way your record notes about them.
Now that we’ve discussed the spectra that influence how you approach the content of your notes, let’s actually address the types of information you should include in your notes.
We will list a number of categories (with examples) below—keep in mind that depending on where you fall with a relationship on the different spectra, the types of things you include for each section will change. For some relationships, you will use all of these categories, for some you’ll use only a few. Don’t pressure yourself to use every category for every relationship!
- Who they are: These are things that don’t change often if at all, so you won’t have to update this for every meeting. How much you include here will depend on the nature of your relationship, as well as how well you know someone before you start taking notes on them. For instance, you may not need to take these notes on your childhood best friend, or you may take very few of these notes on a client. You may take a lot of these notes on your partner’s best friend, however. Some examples might be:
- Where they are from
- Where they went to school
- What they liked to do for fun as a kid
- What types of music they like
- Any recent family/personal updates: This is similar to the above category but more likely to change every so often. Once more, this will depend on your relationship. Some examples:
- Recent vacations they’ve been on
- Recent/Upcoming moves they have planned
- What they’ve been up to on the weekends
- Any new pets
- What they are doing for work/professions/occupations: This isn’t limited to the typical 40-hr workweek office job. Take notes about anything they are doing that they are viewing as a profession/occupation/calling. For example:
- A newsletter they started
- Their office job
- A new professional certification they started
- What they’ve been thinking about/how they are spending time: Use this section to note what larger themes have been occupying their professional/personal time. For example:
- Books they’ve been wrestling with
- Large themes/trends in their space of expertise they have been processing
- How they are thinking about parenting, family, etc.
- Any ideas or concepts you talked about: Use this section to take notes on any ideas that came up that you would want to recall. Examples:
- The concept of hyperobjects
- Pros/Cons of parliamentary vs. presidential systems
- F1 vs Nascar
- Any next steps: This is where anything you’d like to follow up on in between meetings or in your next meetings goes. You might add:
- A reminder to check in after a big exam or presentation in two weeks (Clay will automatically create a reminder for you within the note)
- Reading recommendations that you’d like to checkout
- A rough agenda for things to circle up on next time
When/how to take notes
As for when/how to sit down to actually write these notes, it’s up to you and how it fits into your workflow. As mentioned in the introduction, the best system is one that you can consistently stick with and keep up sustainably.
If you’re looking for some pointers around building note-taking into a habit, try to identify where your current system succeeds and where it falls short, and iterate from there. It’s okay if you don’t have one or aren’t sure where to start—try a few things and see what works best for you!
Our recommendation is the sooner you take notes, the better, meaning the best-case scenario is during the meeting when possible or directly after.
If you are able to take notes without seeming distracted, start there. If you prefer to be as present as possible during a conversation, take a few minutes after the meeting to jot down notes. If you’re someone who has a lot of meetings, it can be helpful to have a short buffer after each one to give yourself time to note relevant info and action points, as well as give yourself time to check out the next person’s card to refresh yourself on what you talked about last time and what’s been going on in their life.
Clay offers several solutions for note-taking on the go, with Live Text scanning and dictation on our iOS app, as well as the option to add notes on all platforms. That said, our system and recommendations aren’t limited to Clay—you can implement this framework in paper and pencil notes all the way to a professional sales CRM software, whatever works best for you.
Additionally, you can go back to the Review view at the end of each day to ensure you’ve covered all your bases. This might prime your mind to recall something you forgot to add earlier or provide a chance to update the notes with any new developments such as items from follow-up emails.
Best of luck with your note-taking, and please feel free to send us any feedback or thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org