Why note taking and conference handouts go hand in hand

Hans Romaen

Published by Hans Romaen on November 9, 2016

Taking notes at conferences

I was recently re-reading Peter Ryckaert’s recent blog post on how important he finds it to take notes during meetings. It seemed like a good idea to cross-link his message with my experience as a professional conference organizer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve known note-taking to be popular at conferences. In the first place because professionals want to learn from the views and the experience of conference speakers.

No learning without note taking

It’s as simple as that: there’s no learning without note-taking. And all of us know it quite well. As students, we’ve built up a habit of writing down information such that we could easily recall it later during exams.  And those of us who initially ignored the need to take notes during lectures were quickly brought back to reality after the first exams.

There’s no denying that it often feels like we forget anything as quickly as we hear it. That’s more than just a feeling. It’s a scientific fact. We tend to forget almost 40% of any new information within the first 24 hours after reading or hearing it. So from a scientific point of view, taking notes helps us commit information to memory and minimize the rate of forgetting . That makes it easier for any of us to look it up later.

Diving a bit deeper into science: note taking is nothing but a form of memory management. Even the three stages of memory are fully reflected in the note taking process:

  • encoding: interpreting the information that we receive and converting it into a picture or a meaning that we can easily store.
  • storage: capturing the image or the meaning that we created during the encoding step, and creating a permanent record that can be retrieved at any time.
  • retrieval: recalling the stored information whenever and wherever we need it (isn’t that the ultimate reason why we even bother to take notes?).

Note taking and conference handouts go hand in hand

But there’s more to it than this when it comes to explaining the popularity of note-taking at conferences. I’ve talked with thousands of conference delegates over time. What they’re really after is selecting the presentation content that they find most interesting. And enriching it with their own thoughts and ideas. That’s how they can focus on creating a compact set of information. A set of information that is relevant to them and that is easy to use once the conference is over.

Most delegates I’ve talked with consider digital handouts to be the best starting point for this. That’s because they provide a summary of what the conference speaker wants to share with the audience. In other words, handouts ensure that the note-taking process no longer needs to start from scratch. By adding notes, it becomes easy to create a unique piece of personalized content.

What conference delegates are really saying here is that digital handouts and personal notes go hand in hand. And that handouts should always be available upfront. Provided the handouts format allows for instant digital note taking on a tablet or smartphone (because that’s what they bring along to take notes anyhow).

Yet, handouts are mostly not available until after the conference

So with professional conferences having gone digital, you’d expect digital handouts to be made available upfront. Optimistically speaking, I estimate this to be the case in less than 1 out of 4 conferences. That is the reason most often cited by conference delegates whenever they complain how difficult it has become to create quality notes during a conference. It’s not a matter of having the proper note-taking tools. It’s the hurdles that must be taken after the conference to connect notes and speakers’ handouts. It’s the costly time spent on merging them into something of personal value.

Mostly, digital handouts are made available for download once the conference is over. But even in those rare cases when handouts are delivered upfront on a USB stick or a DVD, that isn’t really compatible with the expectations of most conference delegates. In both cases, a lot of after-conference work is still required to merge handouts and personal notes into a compact set of information. And because most people just don’t have the time to do that, I believe this is the major reason why so many conference notes are used so little once the conference is over.

Getting the better of digital conference handouts’ weak spot

During these many conversations with conference delegates, there’s one thing that dawned on me. It would clearly take much more than combining a note-taking app with upfront digital handouts to deliver an effective note-taking experience. Especially as presenters increasingly tend to make changes to their presentation until the very last moment. Even when they deliver digital handouts to the conference organizer before the start of the conference, these handouts tend to be outdated by the time the presentation is given.

That’s clearly a weak spot in making digital conference handouts available upfront. The more I discussed this with others, the more obvious it became to me there’s only one way to get the better of this weak spot. Deliver live handouts to the conference audience while the speaker is presenting.

Going live, working together

That’s really what inspired the crowdbeamer concept: the idea that a device is needed to deliver live presentation content to any conference delegate’s tablet or smartphone. And the need to combine that with an app that makes it easy to personalize this content. That makes presentation handouts and note taking work together.

If note taking has always been popular at conferences, chances are it will get even more popular in future.

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2 Comments

  • Why can organisers not share the pptx file live over the wifi channel just before the speaker starts to presents? As such it would be easy to take notes in the notes part of the pptx file. Another possibility is to provide a short link on every slide linking to a webpage containing a replica (png) of the info eg bit.ly/drupa_02_04_012 (drupa day 2 speaker 4 slide 012).

    Reply
    • For smaller groups, your suggestion could be a solution. But even in this case crowdbeamer still offers some advantages: crowdbeamer is independent of an existing wifi connection, and because the device is battery powered too, you can use it anywhere, anytime. Moreover, crowdbeamer supports not only still images, but a presenter can broadcast video fragments, websites, a Prezi presentation, an Excel sheet, … whatever he wants to display. And most people who present something appreciate the fact that their audience cannot look forward.

      Apart from the case that you mention, the crowdbeamer solution can also server larger audiences, as we use specific technology to broadcast the screens.

      Reply

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