There are three steps in helping yourself enjoy a lecture or presentation:
Step #1: Before the Talk
- Research the speaker and the topic. Use the presentation title, the published abstract, the name and position of the speaker to learn and anticipate as much from this particular talk as possible. Make a list of key words or ideas (in brief) that you are comfortable with in one box; make a list of key words or ideas (in brief) that you are uncomfortable with in another box. Read up on the contents of the second box as much as possible.
- Be prepared. Create a template for each talk: a title for the set of notes you are going to take; include as many details as you feel are necessary (you can edit outanything that is not useful later). Prepare a note taking template mirroring the key points in the abstract, with ample blank space to write in. Make it as flexible as possible. Use a mind map and allow for space to develop it. Have a device ready to take pictures of any slides or materials that the speakers uses during the talk. Use a list of abbreviations or icons that you are comfortable with. Practice new abbreviations or icons that you would like to use during the talk.
- Be organized. Decide what materials you need to bring with you to the talk. Use the ones you are most comfortable with. If you want to experiment with a new medium do it before hand (be certain of your proficiency and efficiency in real conditions). Charge your electronic devices and sharpen your pencils. Use different colours to highlight key points or sections of the talk (a maximum of two is usually enough). Have backup equipment that are easy to carry (a power bank, a sharpener). Have a sturdy notebook available (avoid loose pages). Mark all handouts (electronic or hardcopy consistently so you can keep a track of them later. If you are attending a series of talks, create a dedicated file or notebook section for each one.
- Be selective. Choose where to sit carefully. An aisle seat may mean that you are distracted by other participants coming or leaving. A middle seat may leave you stranded with lack of space to work. Make sure you have a clear view of the screen and the speaker space. Make certain that you can easily read from the screen or take a picture of it. Make sure there is sufficient lighting for you to write or type. Make certain there is enough space for the equipment you want to use.
Step #2: During the talk
- Create a record. Take notes consistently. Use the same abbreviations and icons throughout. Avoid trying to write down every word. Use your template for guidance. Concentrate on the main points and key information. Cross refer to the handouts that are mentioned or the slides that have been shown. Write legibly and use known abbreviations or icons to help you. Again use them consistently. Listen for cues that signal an explanation, additional information or a change of topic. Adapt your template to reflect the structure of the talk. Use quick diagrams or graphs to summarise information where possible. Visualise information as much as possible. Aim for content and accuracy, not perfection; you will have time to do this later. During the Q&A time at the end of the talk, ask for clarification if there is a point that you are uncertain of. As a general rule, avoid jargon as much as possible. Keep your own notes even if the speaker says that he has prepared a set for you to take at the end of the talk.
Step #3: After the talk
- Work on your record. Review your notes immediately (or as soon as possible) after the meeting. Make certain you understand them and rewrite them in a format that is appropriate and suitable for you. You can work on perfection at this point. You can correct any language errors and fill in any missing parts. You can rework your icons and diagrams, enriching them with information from slides and handouts. If the final version of your notes is handwritten then create an electronic version of it, usually a pdf file. The same principle applies to electronic notes.
- Share your record. Use social media (your own or the event’s) or specialist sites to share your notes. Encourage feedback. You can do so by discuss any unclear points with other participants or starting a discussion yourself. You may want to contact the speaker himself if there is contact information available. Finalise your notes and store them in a safe place for future reference.
- Research the topic further. Depending on how interesting, relevant or current the content of the talk was, investigate different possibilities or options.
The three steps outlined above are only meant to help the listener of a talk appreciate the experience as much as possible. They are not strict guidelines, rather suggestions towards developing a personal style. As a presentation participant, I personally find it rewarding to try and decode the structure and the hierarchy in a talk, map it out visually and focus on key elements and suggestions. When I try to use a new note taking device (handwritten or electronic), a new mind map or a series of new icons, I usually practice with videos available on the internet. This way I can assess how effective each tool is before using it in the next event.
Remember that according to William Jennings Bryan: “Two people in a conversation amount to four people talking. The four are what one person says, what he really wanted to say, what his listener heard, and what he thought he heard.”