Read Faster, Remember More
If this is your premise then it is time to think again. Speed reading is not about forcing you to work harder. On the contrary, by enabling you to improve your reading speed by up to 300 per cent, it is much more about helping you to handle your time and your workload more efficiently.
In this article we highlight some of the key issues that surround speed reading as well as outlining some of the ways in which you can start to build your reading speed. More than this, however, we underline the key aspect of this approach. It is in nobody’s interest to read faster if you can’t remember anything of what you have read; so here we want to point to the ways in which you can speed read and improve your ability to recall information at the same time.
How can speed reading help you?
The most common reason which drives people towards speed reading is their desire to find better ways to manage and cope with information overload. Today’s corporate executives are having to take in, absorb and recall more information than ever and, of course, most of this data arrives in written form – through minutes, reports, proposals, brochures and, of course, texts and emails.
However, speed reading should not be seen simply as a reactive technology. Many participants on our courses report that one of the main drivers for them is to be able to find a way to read those books that have been sitting on their shelf for too long or those magazines that come every week and which they never seem to have time to open. These managers and executives recognise that knowledge is the fuel of career success and in this respect speed-reading is a step forward in efficiency, providing people with a real edge in a competitive world.
So, in brief, here are the benefits of speed reading. It
- massively reduces the time it takes you to get through your workload.
- enables you to learn faster.
- helps you to be more competitive.
- provides you with more free time/thinking time.
- reduces your stress.
On top of this it also aids comprehension and recall. The logic for this last detail is important. Most people when reading continually find their attention wandering. As a result they have to reread paragraphs or whole pages and this disrupts the flow and sense of what the writer is trying to communicate. More than this, researchers have found that most of this back skipping is completely unnecessary i.e. it doesn’t improve our understanding of what we are reading.
In contrast to this, speed reading forces us, the reader, to maintain momentum and keep reading. In doing this we gather large chunks of information and we fill in much of the detail because, typically, we know some of the background to the subject anyway.
How does speed reading work?
Let us move on now to the mechanics of speed reading.
The essential processes of speed reading are these. When asked, most people assume that they read in a smooth left to right motion across the page. However our eye movements when we read are not smooth at all. Our eyes have to stop at regular intervals in order for us to take in new data and this means that we actually take a series of small jumps as we read across the page. The jumps are known as saccades, the pauses are known as fixations.
Fixations are the key determinant of our reading speed. If you take a long fixation, reading each line word by word, you will be a slow reader. And if you skip back over words or re-read whole paragraphs, as most people do, this will handicap you further. The skills therefore are these – to spend less time on each fixation and to learn to take in more words with each fixation.
There are, however, two quite separate aspects of speed reading that are helpful to distinguish here and they are these:
Reading more efficiently
Speed reading is not only about improving reading speed. It also includes a number of techniques which help you to read more efficiently and adapt your approach to what you are reading. For example if you have a large report to read then, to start with, you will probably need an overview. So speed reading includes a range of what we call ‘assessment’ techniques which provide you, the reader, with the relevant information that you will need in order to determine whether, or not, you need to continue reading a particular document.
This ‘assessment’ aspect of speed reading surprises many people who typically have it in mind that speed reading is just about reading everything faster. But in effect it is about having the right tool for the job. There is no point reading a document that is not interesting or is better read by someone else. That is the purpose of developing some of the powerful assessment techniques that are now available.
In this respect here is an outline of four techniques which are available to you, each of which can deepen your understanding of the material that may be sitting in your in-tray.
- The structured overview is a way of finding out what the document you have picked up is all about, what ground it is covering and what its promise is to you. You have probably unconsciously adopted this strategy yourself when you’ve picked up, say, a new magazine at a newsagents. You filter for key information by looking at the cover, assessing the layout, reading the contents and perhaps the editorial. As you flick through the magazine you are looking for those signposts that can orientate you and help you determine whether you want to buy it.
- The rapid pre-read is another assessment technique where you determine a short period of time, say ten minutes, and deliberately run through all the pages in the document at a rate of one or two seconds per page.
What this technique provides is a greater insight into the flow and content of the document without going into too much detail. It allows you, the reader, to make a note of parts of the document that might be interesting and to determine whether all, some, or none of the document should be read in more detail.
- Skimming is a slightly different assessment technique to those above but will also help readers to assess their material. In this case you are rapidly reading the headlines of the document, identifying main themes, trying to get a sense of the story being told. The practise of skimming takes advantage of all those devices put in by editors and authors to break up the text such as headings and sub headings, illustrations and captions, summaries and conclusions, panels and bullet points.
- Scanning is the way you look for specific pieces of information. You naturally do this when, for example, you are looking up someone’s name in a phone directory. All scanning does is build on this skill by ensuring that you are absolutely clear what you are looking for, by letting your eyes move to familiar phrases and by using clues or structures within the document to guide you to the places you need to go.
All of these techniques allow you to assess your material for relevance or interest and, as such, provide you with a powerful way of managing the information that you get sent every day which will otherwise clog up your in-tray or in-box.
The second aspect of this approach is to improve your actual reading speed and here again there are a number of techniques to learn.
One extremely useful technique is to use a guide such as a pencil, a cursor or even your finger to underline the words as you read. Your guide in this context is your pace-setter and keeps your eyes moving along the line smoothly. On its own people find that this one technique can sometimes double their reading speed because it simply helps them to improve their focus.
Another technique which I have already alluded to is to maintain momentum. So when you have the urge to go back over something you have just read – don’t do it. Stop yourself. Instead keep reading forward. Rereading text is just a bad habit that you have to learn to break.
Now part of what this implies is the need for commitment and practise. I have only briefly touched upon two important techniques here but neither of them are hard to learn. Nevertheless many people find it hard to break habits and make a change. Their commitment falters, their habits are too ingrained and that is why the last part of this article focuses on how we can get behind ourselves to make learning occur.
Beliefs and attitudes
When it comes to speed reading I suggest that our challenges stem as much from our beliefs as from our capability. For example, do you believe that you can read more than one word at a time, maintain comprehension when you are reading faster and recall more of what you have read when you are reading faster?
These benefits are all within reach – but your first challenge is to believe that they are possible for you.
Now we know that our beliefs drive our behaviour. So if you don’t believe that the benefits of speed reading are within your reach then guess what, they will not occur. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. So in order to break your patterns of thinking and behaving you need to be both willing and committed to changing yourself.
In this respect the first part of the process is to create a positive attitude towards your task. If you are in a negative frame of mind you will find that you absorb very little of what you are reading. So what beliefs do you need to have in order to become an accomplished speed reader?
One surprising insight about beliefs is that they are not fixed. You may tend to act is if they are but upon examination you will find that over time your beliefs will have changed considerably. So can you change your beliefs around speed reading? Can you, for example, try out this belief…‘I believe that I can learn speed reading very easily’ or perhaps this one ‘I believe that in three weeks I will be able to read at least three times faster than I read now’.
In essence then if you want to develop your skill as a speed reader you will need to do more than simply learn about the techniques. You will need to apply yourself to learning with commitment and with a positive belief until you are reaping the benefits of this approach. In this respect you can help your self by:
- being clear what outcomes you want to get from becoming a speed reader.
- choosing the attitude that will help you to become positively engaged with the material that you are about to read.
- suspending disbelief and working towards a belief that is consistent with your goals.
- taking account of your energy and your own rhythms of learning and, when necessary, taking breaks and relax.
- managing your environment so that you are not disturbed or interrupted.
Rapid pre-reading in practice
I was recently working with John, a lawyer who told me that he regularly receives large reports in the morning. These reports are up to 300 pages long and are full of detailed legal information. By the afternoon John has to be able to run client meetings based on these documents. So how can he possibly absorb and retain so much information?
The solution John found was to use rapid pre-reading, deliberately turning the pages of the report so that he quickly gained an overview of the case or project at hand. But importantly, as he browsed through these documents, he highlighted those sections which were critical or which he needed to read in more detail. This allowed him to bypass areas he knew and to spend more time on areas of detail or issues of concern.
For a man in John’s role rapid pre-reading has proved to be essential. This is a practical solution for a workload that, he believed, might otherwise have been unmanageable.
For all of us learning to learn is becoming less of a choice and more of a necessity. It is not only a response to an accelerating world but it is also about harnessing our potential and becoming truly effective in the world in which we work.
So should you be learning how to speed read? Is it worth the investment of your time and energy? Only you can assess how much information you have to take in every week and how much pressure you feel as you try to keep abreast of all the latest advances in your industry. But if you want to improve your ability to manage information overload and keep your knowledge up to date then I believe that speed reading is part of that answer.
- Test your reading speed with our FREE Speed Reading Challenge