Writing a business book: Taking Interview Notes

Jan 13, 2015 | Better Writing

The thinking for this post started when I read Drake Baer’s post about the Cornell note taking system. I realized that most of us, at least in my generation, never learned how to take notes. Schools and teachers and all of us just assumed that we knew how. What folly!!

Today, many schools are teaching students ways to take notes. If you’re writing for business, though, you may still have to work out your own system.

You’re not in college anymore

The test of a note-taking system is whether you can do something else better. In college that was “pass the test.” If you’re writing a business book, your notes should help you write a better book.

In college you probably took notes in a classroom. If you’re writing a business book, you’ll take most of your notes during an interview.

You’ll find two articles with lots of technique info at the end of this post. But you’ll probably have to work out your own system, one that’s comfortable for you and gets the job done.

Here are some suggestions based on how I take notes during an interview on the phone when I’m in my office.

Prepare for the interview

Take time before your interview to clarify what you want to wind up with. I usually have two or three things I want to learn about. I put those at the top of the page where I’ll be taking notes.

If there are documents I want to have at the ready during the interview, I print them out and highlight relevant passages. Then I hang them on a cork bar on the wall so I can see the important stuff at a glance.

Listen for connections

Thoughts and ideas can be captured effectively using key words and short phrases. I use my own variation on mind mapping to make sure I capture the connections between thoughts. Colored sharpies let me indicate quickly which idea are my reactions.

Debrief yourself

When the interview is done, the note taking is not. Take some time to debrief yourself. I record my impressions on the digital voice recorder I use to capture ideas. Later on, I’ll transcribe those thoughts and review them again.


Here are two resources that offer descriptions of several different ways to take notes.

Cal Poly Student Academic Services offers a nice comparison of popular note taking systems. They include a brief description, advantages and disadvantages, and suggestions on when to use the method. A PDF is available. This was prepared for students in college, but there’s still good things here for you.

Lifehacking has lots of advice on note taking and includes a lot of detail and some methods that you won’t find on the Cal Poly page. The comments are helpful, too.