Meetings vs. Electrons

Several posts have cropped up lately concerning using an iPad in meetings. Ben Brooks is for it. Randy Murray, not so much while Eddie Smith walks the middle path. This raises a bigger question about the role of technology in meetings and since it is hard for me to have a single unpublished thought, here I go.

I specifically recall the first time I confronted the issue of electrons and meetings. It was 1995 and I was talking to a group of clients about some pretty serious troubles. The clients (all three of them) had shiny new Apple Newtons and were making plenty of “bleep, blop, blorg” sounds while I was busy trying to keep them from getting sued into oblivion. I thought the whole thing was ridiculous. As a result of that single event, for a long time pen and paper was my only meeting technology and I skipped the Newton revolution.

A few years ago the Livescribe Pen showed up at Macworld. The Livescribe pen is great in a meeting. It records your pen strokes on its microdot paper letting you create a PDF of your notes. In addition to digital backup, it optionally records your conversation and indexes the recording to the pen strokes. Tap the pen on the page where you scribbled “fanny pack” and the pen plays the recording it took while your boss talked about his holiday.

My note taking skills were never that good. Using the Livescribe pen, I now jot down signposts and instead focus my attention on the other people in the room. Perhaps it is less efficient having to go back and listen (or at least index) later but my peanut-like brain usually gets something out of the review and I know I get more information out of the meeting attendees when I’m focused on them instead of scribble scrabble. So I was happy using the Livescribe pen. My nerdy nougat filling found a way to use a gadget in meetings. Then the iPad showed up.

iPad Notes

For the last month, I’ve been desperately trying to replace the Livescribe Pen with any of the legions of note taking apps for the iPad. We are recording a Mac Power Users episode on taking notes later today and I’m here to report that, after a month of research, none of them really worked for me.

Despite some very smart developers best intents, I didn’t find an app that could keep up with my Livescribe pen. There are a variety of iPad note taking apps. Some of them let you zoom in on the screen and later shrink it. Others will record and let you drop in graphics. When the bullets were flying in a busy meeting however, they all were more distracting than helpful. Drawing words with my fingers just didn’t work. Perhaps it was all that loud music I used to listen to or my inherent lack the fine motor control but, despite my best efforts, everything I wrote came out looking like the half drunken scrawlings of a semi-literate yak herder. I bought a stylus for the iPad, which is kind of nifty for diagraming but useless for words.

The closest I came to making the iPad work as a capture device in meetings was iThoughtsHD. iThoughts makes it really easy to build mind maps and it is wicked fast. When a meeting strays in to brain storming, iThoughts kept up with a pen and paper mind map just fine.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Great Meetings

Although I’m not sold on the iPad to take notes in meetings, I have found a role for it. The iPad serves as an all knowing, all seeing, source of information. Because I’ve incorporated so much of my world into the iPad, I find it really useful as a reference in meetings. If a question comes up about some document, chances are, I have an annotated version of it sitting in GoodReader. Want to talk about a complicated brief? I probably already have an iThoughts outline of it drawn up. Trying to figure out dates, open the calendar. I’ve also got OmniFocus task lists, Simplenote text files, and Safari to answer just about any question that comes up.

A quick war story

I was in one of those smoke filled rooms for an “important” meeting. One guy was doing most of the talking. To protect the guilty, I’ll call him “Blowhard.” Anyway, Blowhard starts going on and on about how the contract says X, not Y. Everyone in the room is raising their eyebrows thinking this Blowhard guy really has it together. Meanwhile I’m drilling into GoodReader and plugging it into the projector. Up comes the contract with my bookmark directly on the paragraph in question, with my highlights showing that, sadly, Blowhard has it wrong. The contract says Y, not X. I even had a little annotation commenting on it. Behold the power of iPad.

The iPad is invaluable as a reference in a meeting. It is so good at this role that using it to take notes gets in the way. I’d rather take notes somewhere else so the iPad is free to be my Hitchhiker’s guide to everything.

The Wall

The problem I’ve always had with laptops in meetings is that they inevitably feel like you are erecting a wall between yourself and the other person. As a result, I rarely use a laptop in a meeting. When I do use them, it is to display a Keynote presentation or an indexed set of PDF documents. Those roles, however, are quickly being usurped by the iPad. If you must use a laptop in a meeting, have other attendees sit next to you or project it so they don’t wonder if you are twittering.

Summarize, Please

To answer the question, I do see a use for the iPad in meetings, but not to take notes. Instead, I use it to make me look brilliant. I’m okay with that. is sponsored by Bee Docs Timeline 3D. Make a timeline presentation with your Mac.