Take Some Notes

taking notes during an interview

We all have jotted down some notes regarding a conversation—something we wanted to remember or just a simple to-do list. Most of us have never had any training in taking notes, but instead just kind of developed our own style that sort of seemed to work. Universities recognized that students had little or no training in note taking, so they helped by developing note-taking systems and strategies to help the fledgling freshmen. Interestingly, we have been using these strategies for years without knowing that the universities had established some formats. A simple Google search will turn up a number of college training programs that you might find interesting.

When listening to an educator, the student attempts to determine what are the most important points in the lecture to help decide what will be on the upcoming test. Interviewers are looking for clues to help identify whether the person is truthful or untruthful, withholding information, or where additional details might be uncovered through their questioning.

In a criminal investigation one of the first areas that will be explored by the interviewer consists of biographical information relating to the subject. This area of discussion will assist the interviewer in establishing the subject’s behavioral norm in areas where he is likely to be giving truthful information. This portion of the interview helps the investigator become accustomed to the subject’s demeanor, voice patterns, and speed of delivery. The interviewer easily controls this section by primarily asking closed-ended questions to elicit specific information relating to the subject’s background. In our interviews, we often use a pre-printed form to capture this basic information before moving on to the next phases of the interview.

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Note taking is unlikely to be an exact transcription of the conversation, even when the witness is also taking notes. Note takers can generally write twenty-five to thirty words per minute, while the speaker is talking at 110 to 160 words per minute. Clearly, contemporaneous note taking will not capture a verbatim response from a subject unless the interviewer continually interrupts the narrative to transcribe everything said. If capturing everything said during the interview is important, the investigator should consider whether or not the conversation should be recorded. Plus, interrupting the story will impede the individual’s recall of the event.


Preparation is a key consideration for any interview. Establishing what information the subject might possess and having some idea what the elements of the particular crime being investigated are will help formulate the topics that are necessary to cover. Preplanning for the interview can help organize the topics necessary to be covered and even their potential order of importance. Think of the preplanning as a classroom exercise where the syllabus and reading materials provide the general topics likely to be explored during the educator’s lecture. Knowing this information would allow the listener to use an outline type of format to take notes during the class.

After the interviewer has established rapport with the individual, he prepares to move into the untainted narrative portion of the subject’s story or alibi. This untainted narrative is the first time the story is offered, and it is likely to lack the detail and depth required by the investigator. This first telling is what the subject feels is important, and this is likely to provide the beginning of a timeline of events relevant to the investigation. If the person being interviewed is a subject-matter expert concerning business events or processes, then the investigator is looking for background information to compare against what he is told by upcoming interviewees. Some investigators rely on a witness to take contemporaneous notes of the conversation. While this can be effective, we believe an investigator should take his own notes relating to the conversation to assist in recall and evaluation of the subject’s story.

Note-Taking Format

Our general practice is to use a legal pad for note taking. This provides a relatively large surface to write notes, and the pages remain in chronological order unless removed from the tablet. Moving from page to page, it is wise to number each subsequent page, so the investigator can be certain of their order. On the first sheet of the notes, we put the subject’s name, date, and the location of the interview. In addition, if there are multiple individuals involved in the story, we assign them a shorthand notation to identify them. For example, subject number one would be identified as S1-Tom Jones, S2-Terry Smith, S3-Tom Barker, and so on until everyone has been assigned a number. This allows the investigator to quickly identify the party being spoken about without confusion. So the investigator might write S1 arrives 8:55 a.m., and we would immediately know that this is Tom Jones, rather than Tom Barker.


Developing a short hand of commonly used words and phrases will also help to keep up with the subject’s narrative or her more lengthy answers to questions. For example, we use IDK to indicate “I don’t know the answer to that” or IDR for “I don’t remember.” If a series of words are an exact quote they are placed in quotation marks. We also circle key words to show importance or a need to more fully explore the meaning. We might circle words such as “about,” “usually,” “he appeared nervous,” “he rushed,” or “he was very animated.” They are adjectives, descriptions, or estimates that indicate there may be more information available if the investigator probes. We circle them so as not to interrupt the flow of the subject’s narrative, but also to indicate areas we need to explore more fully.

Critical areas of the interview can be highlighted with a star to the left edge of the paper and a line drawn to the point in the narrative or time line that is very important. These areas could be verbal statements or physical movements that might indicate areas of stress and need to be explored more fully.

Indicate physical behavioral changes by drawing a line across the page to the left side and marking it with an “M” to indicate a movement or large body shift. While we don’t know the reason for the movement, the questioning will return to this area later in the interview to determine if it was random or the result of stress. We don’t generally worry about the exact description of the movement; we just indicate that one occurred. Think of these movements as possible stress points that need to be more fully explored, rather than indicators of deception.

Formatting the Page

To prepare the legal pad for note taking, draw a vertical line about 25 percent to the right of the left edge of the paper. Draw a horizontal line from the left side of the paper to the right side of the paper about two inches from the bottom. (See sample note page above.)

Effectively, what you have done is made a column on the left and a row at the very bottom of the paper, which leaves a large open area for note taking to the top right of the paper. The small column on the left is used to identify areas where there is a significant change in verbal or physical behavior in the story or to note something important that was said. The row at the bottom of the page is used to identify evidence that must be followed up on or possibly an investigative lead contained in the subject’s statements. For example, the investigator might write, “Obtain bank deposits made last three months.” Using this bottom row provides a space for the investigator to capture information he might otherwise forget later on. There are a number of commercially available legal pads with this style of pre-printed pages if you don’t mind shelling out the extra money.

The large open area to the right of the page is where we take the notes detailing the subject’s story. If you imagine dividing this space into three columns, we use the far right column as the time line of the first telling of the story. This is the uninterrupted narrative with as much detail as the subject includes and is the basic outline of the story. As the interviewer begins to use questions to expand the details, he uses the second imaginary column to write these details using a horizontal line to show where it fits in the timeline. The third column offers space to capture the answers to additional expansion of the details and to show where they belong in the timeline.

One page is often not sufficient to contain all the notes. Considering the time line, the interviewer divides the line into logical breaking points. The interviewer then uses the next pages to expand the details of the narrative of each of these sections. So the second page might provide much more exquisite detail of the time between the subject’s arrival at work and when she logged into the register at opening. The investigator drills down the details during this section and then expands the next section and next until all the sections of the timeline have been fully explored.

If there is critical detail that must be captured during a subject interview, a recording is the best way to make sure each word is captured. There may be instances where this is impossible or against policy, which makes note taking a critical component of capturing the information. The interviewer working with the witness can often establish a clear and comprehensive record of what was said and its context if a recording is not possible.

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