James Comey's memo shows us why we need to take notes | Ladders

Good notes are helpful even when national security isn't at stake.
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James Comey’s explosive memo is an example of why we need to take notes

Last Tuesday, James Comey was fired from his role as F.B.I. Director. Within a week, it emerged that Comey had kept notes of every interaction he had with his boss, the president.

In an explosive report on Tuesday, The New York Times revealed that Comey had allegedly been writing detailed memos of his conversations to keep a paper trail, which could not only save his reputation but also provide powerful proof of troublesome communications that could tangle up the presidency for months. Comey’s memo could be ruinous to the president’s ability to stave off further investigation.

Write down what’s important, every day

This is all coming to light because Comey kept good notes. He has long been a diligent note-taker of sensitive conversations. During the Bush administration, he kept notes of a famous showdown about warrantless government surveillance and he used his emails to colleagues as documented proof of his objection to the White House’s use of torture.

Our own notes may not become memoranda for the record or a matter of national security, but managers and employees can learn from Comey on how to take better notes.

Even if you don’t think something untoward is happening, good notes help you remember how you handled major problems and reviewing them later could offer useful insights on what your company’s leadership is looking for.

Do it while your memory is still fresh

For Comey, what bolsters his credibility is that he’s writing these memos shortly after the conversations happen, not weeks after they occurred. The timestamps are helpful in court too.

One former top FBI official told the Times that “the fact that he wrote it when it happened lends weight to it. It’s not like he wrote something last weekend and backdated it.”

Write, don’t type

During the Bush administration, Comey was known for typing his meeting notes on his BlackBerry. For the rest of us, we recommend writing by hand because it helps us retain more information than typing.

When it comes to remembering things, science has found that the pen is mightier than the screen. According to a 2014 study, students who took longhand notes were able to remember more complex information than students taking notes on laptops.

Keep records of what’s not said

Harvard Business Review recommends note-taking during meetings, because it can make us better listeners of what happens in those meetings. In these margin notes, you don’t just document what was said, you keep track of who said what when, as well as broader themes and team dynamics.

This could mean keeping notes of nonverbal behavior and body language. Why did so-and-so avoid eye contact? Where did people sit in the room? These could be interpersonal questions to bring up in one-on-ones.

Doing this helps us connect the dots more clearly, whether we’re an FBI director keeping a paper trail or an employee trying to make sense of a meeting.