Richard Branson has come a long way from his days selling records out of the trunk of his car.
Since starting his first business—a magazine called Student—with less than $2,000 at the age of 16, the founder of the Virgin Group has gone on to run record labels and music stores, passenger rail services and airlines, and countless other successful companies.
In 2021, Forbes listed Branson’s estimated net worth at US$5.7 billion—the same month he became the third oldest person to fly to space while traveling aboard a test flight for his commercial spaceflight company Virgin Galactic.
Aside from a desire to rise above seemingly impossible challenges, he credits one simple skill to his success.
“I am often asked what the most important practical skills are if one wants to become a successful entrepreneur,” he wrote in a 2019 blog post. “The first one that comes to mind is note-taking.”
According to Sir Richard, taking notes is “one of the most powerful tools” he has in his “bag of business tricks.”
He's not alone: Microsoft founder Bill Gates is another famous note-taker. But he estimates that 99 percent of people in leadership roles don't do it, despite forming the backbone for many of his business decisions.
“I urge everybody to take notes, whatever they are doing, wherever they are going,” he wrote in one of his many blog posts on the topic, saying the process has helped him do everything from combat gender bias at work to come up with some of Virgin’s greatest ideas.
Here’s how to implement similar note-taking strategies in your own life.
How to Take Notes Like Richard Branson
1. Use Active Listening When Taking Notes
In a 2019 blog post, Branson recalls taking part in a gathering for his charity Virgin Unite with a group of local students from the British Virgin Islands, where he spotted a young girl “taking detailed, handwritten notes” during each of the talks.
“Having made her notes and considered them, [she] was able to ask some thoughtful questions to the speakers and develop the discussion further,” he writes. “She referred to her notes as she asked her questions, which I found so refreshing.”
What Branson seems to be describing here is called active listening. It's a skill many leaders and professionals develop that involves attentively listening to a speaker without distraction to show engagement, fully understand and reflect on what’s being said, and retain information—often in the form of note-taking.
According to Indeed, active listening encourages knowledge and understanding in the workplace. It can also help professionals identify and solve challenges more easily by ensuring they don’t miss out on critical information or important details during a talk.
“By really listening to people, and accurately writing down what they are saying, you are far more likely to remember it, and to take action based upon it,” Branson writes.
2. Be Selective About What You Write Down
Often, people struggle with deciding what’s important to write down when taking notes. As a result, notes can often become unwieldy and contain too much information that isn’t relevant.
Instead of trying to transcribe everything that comes out of a speaker’s mouth, Branson suggests focusing on two main things.
“Whenever I’m listening to anybody, I try to note down the points that most interest or concern me,” he writes.
By focusing on what’s compelling and what needs more clarification, Branson suggests that it’ll be easier to “act upon” what’s discussed and remember it later.
3. Review Your Notes, So You Know What to Focus On
You probably realize Mr. Branson is passionate about taking notes by this point.
Still, despite his public championing of the skill, he often has meetings where no one takes any notes, calling it one of his “greatest frustrations.”
“This often happens with, for instance, politicians,” he writes. “We will have a meeting, talk about dozens of ideas to improve things, and they won’t write anything down. They might remember one of the ideas, but what about all of the others. They will have to muddle through and little will get done.”
According to Branson, reviewing your notes after a meeting can help business leaders spot “themes” and “issues [that] keep coming up” during conversations, know what to prioritize, and ensure no great ideas get missed.
4. Turn Thoughts Into Action
“You shouldn't just take notes for the sake of it,” Branson writes. “They need to be productive.”
To do so, Branson recommends taking notes and turning them into “actionable and measurable goals.”
Although he doesn’t get into the specifics of how to do this, one of the easiest ways is to create a list of tasks or action items after each meeting to ensure you’re accomplishing your goals and making progress toward what you’re setting out to do.
5. Make Note-Taking Easy and Accessible
Like some people, Branson says he prefers a pen and paper for taking notes, saying it helps information “stick in my head more firmly.”
But he’s also been known to jot notes down on practically any surface, including menus, name tags, and even the back of his hand.
“It doesn’t matter what form your note-taking takes. I prefer a trusty notebook, but laptops and phones can do the trick,” he writes.
The important thing, at the end of the day, “is to capture it,” whether it’s a great idea inspired by a chance encounter or something to follow up on after a meeting.