Note taking can be a tricky job at the best of times, but when it comes to learning highly technical information from a subject matter expert (SME), the task always seems that much more difficult. A big part of our job at Essential Instructions is consuming highly technical information, digesting it, and disseminating it in such a way that other non SME’s can understand. In this article we’ll share a few tips on effective note taking and how to ensure that you come out with the best possible information.
The first skill to master is keeping pace with the interviewee. This can be particularly difficult with highly technical SME’s who often work at light speed, especially when they’re normally surrounded by other SME’s who can also keep pace. One of the best tools here is to type your notes using a laptop, since writing by hand could prevent you from keeping up. If this isn’t an option then you might consider developing your own form of shorthand as described in our past article: http://www.essentialinstructions.ca/2011/04/develop-your-own-form-of-shorthand-for-light-speed-note-taking/.
To further increase your speed, be sure to only record the important points, focusing on facts rather than the interviewee’s specific words. Ideally if you can put things into your own words here then this processing of information will help you to better understand the material on the spot.
Just as important as keeping pace is also controlling the pace. It’s critical that you bring the interviewee down to your speed, especially if the subject matter is new to you. The trick here is to “buy” time, especially if you’re behind in your note taking. This can be accomplished by asking the interviewee “throw away” or clarification questions for which you don’t really care about the answer. Another method is to ask them to dig up a supporting document, email, or other resource related to the current talking point, while you catch up on your notes or digest information.
Paraphrasing is another useful tactic not just for controlling the pace but also forcing you to process the information, while clarifying it with the interviewee. Read back the important points in your own words, as you understand them, and make sure that the interviewee agrees with your interpretation. The keywords here are “as you understand them”. There is no point in simply repeating what has been said, you need to process, clarify, and verify the information before you can take on new information. Don’t move forward until this has been accomplished or you will simply accumulate more information that you don’t fully understand.
As we’ve said before a picture is worth a thousand words, so if you can center the interview around a diagram which both you and the SME contribute to then you don’t have to keep all of the details in your head. And you’ll have something to take away with you after the interview to help jog your memory. One tip here is to be actively involved in the drawing, especially if it’s a diagram of interconnected elements. This will help you to process the information and force the interviewee to contribute in a way that makes the most sense to you.
Another tip is to make your level of knowledge clear to the interviewee. If you have technical knowledge of the subject matter make that clear. If the interviewee thinks they need to use analogies when you don’t need information simplified, then they may further complicate information transfer when in fact you could have been speaking on the same level to begin with.
Finally, after the interview make sure you review the information you collected and fill in any details while they’re still fresh in your head. Doing so will help you come out with the most complete information possible.