How to Take Call Notes in Finance
As the most junior member of almost any team – whether in investment banking, private equity and even in non-finance roles – you’ll most likely be responsible for taking notes on a ton of calls. Before you have a strong grasp on the technical details and the analysis, your greatest value add on team calls will be via organization and thoroughness. And it’s important you take good notes because it can be the earliest reflection of your standard of care. A lot of the time you spend as an investment banking analyst will be on calls, so it's important to make sure you're contributing while on them.
It might seem like note-taking is obvious and intuitive, but here are a couple of tips that can still help you stand out. These are some easy small things that collectively can help you appear more organized and more professional.
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1. Include the date, topic, and relevant attendees
Let's start with the super simple. Put the date, topic, and relevant attendees at the very top of the page. Relevant attendees can be helpful because it can highlight the level of involvement of a group.
For example, if you’re an investment bank trying to sell a company and the partner from the private equity firm you’re trying to sell to keeps missing calls for that deal, it’s a potential sign they aren’t super interested. Many investment banks running a sell-side process will keep a buyer's log, in which they track the activity of the senior private equity professionals.
2. Remove all marketing language and unnecessary jargon
You’ll notice that on a lot of management calls, many people will use a ton of marketing language and unnecessarily flowery descriptors, especially on earnings calls. When you’re taking notes, you should try to write as directly as possible so the eventual reader can absorb information as efficiently as possible. Your goal is to be concise and deliver a clean page of notes, so get rid of adjectives and unnecessary jargon.
The below excerpt is from the Starbucks Q1 2020 earnings call transcript:
“Q1 was an exceptional quarter for Starbucks. The positive business momentum we've created over the past fiscal year continues with a strong start to fiscal 2020. These results were fueled by a healthy balance of comparable sales growth and new store development, as well as continued expansion of our Global Coffee Alliance with Nestle. I'm especially pleased that we delivered meaningful margin expansion in the quarter, even as we continued to invest in the key areas to support sustainable growth, first and foremost in our partners as well as in beverage innovation and digital customer relationships.”
You could cut that down to:
Strong Q1 results driven by comp sales growth, new stores, and Nestle partnership (Global Coffee Alliance)
Positive margin expansion in Q1
3. Give special attention to any concrete numbers that are mentioned
It can be tedious and somewhat pointless to take notes on everything that happens during a call, particularly a long call. But numbers are the one thing that you can’t reverse engineer and take an educated guess at. You should definitely try get down any and all numbers that are mentioned on the call. You don’t have to write down numbers that will be printed on materials (e.g. on a press release).
4. Give special attention every time something is asked
You should always take notes when someone asks a question, because more often than not, it’ll reflect what people are actually thinking about. I like to write down the question, answer and whoever asked the question:
Q: TMT Partner asked about the planned R&D spending during Q2 2021
A: Exact company forecast still TBD, but all of 2021 expected to be $17mm (+5% YoY)
5. For public company calls, cross-reference your notes with transcripts and filings
If you’re dealing with a public company and you aren’t sure about a particular detail, you can always quickly check with the official transcript or filing. Going through the transcript can also help you ensure that you covered all of the main details. In general, doing a quick Google check on numbers that seem peculiar or off can also be a good way to double check what you think you heard.
6. If relevant, group information by topic as opposed to chronologically
For long calls that meander back and forth between topics, reading the straight transcript can be confusing for some readers. In private equity, I found myself doing a lot of expert calls, where you speak with an industry expert. The conversations would typically oscillate quite a bit and if I were delivering my notes to a senior partner, I would clean them to group them by topics. It’s a little time consuming, but can make notes much more digestible.
I don't think it's necessary to go through the work of categorizing information for shorter calls (like 30 minutes or so). There generally won't be enough bullet points to have to sort through.
7. Format your notes cleanly
Formatting is one of the easiest ways to deceive someone into thinking that your work is better than it is. Formatting communicates that you care about a work product and you can get a lot of points if you just develop a couple of your own clean templates. I would recommend the following practices:
Title the document / e-mail with the project, main topic and call date
Bold and underline headers
Use bullet points and sub-bullet points
If notes are in a document, attach both Word (if someone wants to amend something) and PDF (if someone wants to read on phone)
8. If it’s an important call or meeting, take the time to scrub your notes
Lastly, if it is going to be an important set of notes, take the time to scrub through them and make sure they’re comprehensible by someone who wasn’t on the call.
People generally speak between 125-150 words per minute and most people type below 100 words per minute, so you’re bound to make some mistakes or grammar shortcuts when note taking. Scrubbing your notes helps account for any human error made during note taking.
Scrubbing your notes can be really time consuming (maybe between 20-30% of however long the call was), so I’d only do this if it was an important assignment. This isn't the sort of thing you do if you're burnt out, but if you want to be a top performer, you should scrub your notes.
Here is the full list again:
Include the date, topic, and relevant attendees
Remove all marketing language and unnecessary jargon
Take special attention to any time that concrete numbers are mentioned
Take special attention every time something is asked
If it’s an earnings call or public company investor call, cross-reference your notes with the transcript to make sure you’ve captured all important details
If relevant, group information by topic as opposed to chronologically
Format your notes cleanly
If it’s an important call or set of notes, take the time to scrub your notes