Why reading makes you a better (business) person

For business owners and managers, a continual pursuit of education and professional development is the key to sustainable growth. And one of the best ways to improve your skills and knowledge is to learn from the experiences of other successful individuals who have been in your shoes before. So, why does reading make you a better business person?

There are many excellent and informative books on business strategy, marketing, leadership and management, financial planning, etc. There are also some book that have been written just for the ego of the author. With so many on the market it can be difficult to know which ones are worth your time and money. If you’re after a reading list, then start with our Resources page (i’m not going to repeat it here). But why does reading make business sense?

Let me put this right out there at the start. I’m not exactly a fast reader. In fact, some books I’m currently ‘reading’ I started over two years ago! I pick them up now and again, read a couple of lines and then either get distracted by ideas that come into my head – either by something I’ve read, or because I’ve diverted my attention away from daily life – or, more than likely, tired! Should I just give up on the book and literally put it down as a lost cause? Or should I persevere in case I miss something inspiring or insightful? Why is reading so problematic to me?

The truth is I’m probably reading the right books, but at the wrong time. Either too late at night or just before I’m going to have to leave the house, peg out the washing or dance with my daughter. But distractions aside, what about understanding what I’ve read? There have been times when that sentence will just not sink in. I also get moments after reading for half an hour where I just cannot remember, with any degree of comprehension, what I’ve just read. Is it just me? I don’t think I’m alone here and that led me to ‘read-up’ on improving my reading skills and habits. The reasons for doing so were, funnily, to ideally reduce my reading time, to enable me to read in a more focused and selective manner. I also hoped to be able to increase my levels of understanding and concentration. So what did I find out.

Firstly, I need to know what type of book I’m reading and ‘adopt’ my technique. My normal reading style for reading a novel is to read in detail, focusing on every word in sequence from start to finish. If it’s a magazine I might flick through the pages to see which articles are of interest (I usually do this in the newsagent and then decide whether or not to buy it). When you search on-line for a particular topic, I will purposefully ignore all other entries and focus my attention on spotting the article or web-page I want or think will lead me to the right answer. These everyday reading skills, apparently, can be applied to reading for business purposes or self-improvement.

To improve your reading skills I’ve learnt that you need to:

  • have clear reading goals;
  • choose the right texts;
  • use the right reading style;
  • use note taking techniques.

Reading goals

Clear reading goals can significantly increase your reading efficiency. Not every book will be of use to you. Use reading goals to select and prioritise information according to the task in hand.

Reading goals can be:

  • to acquire a greater level of knowledge and understanding of a subject area for business development
  • to acquire a greater level of knowledge and understanding of a subject area for personal development
  • to research a selected subject area (e.g. bat ecology);
  • to answer a series of questions about a specific topic.
  • for enjoyment/escapism/fun

Use your reading goals to help you identify the information that is relevant to your current task. Ask yourself ‘why am I reading this’?

Choosing the right book/text

You will need to assess the book/text to see if it contains information that is relevant to your reading goals.

  • Check the date of publication. Is the information up-to-date? Is it the latest edition?
  • Read the publisher’s blurb at the back or inside sleeve for an overview of the content.
  • Check the contents page for relevant chapters.
  • Look up references for your topic in the index.
  • Read the reviews or ask for or seek out recommendations

If the book/text does not seem relevant, discard it.

Once you’ve selected a text you can use the following techniques of scanning and skimming to help you identify areas for detailed reading.

Scanning and Skimming

Scanning is the technique you might use when looking for a specific web-page on-line. You pass your vision speedily over a section of text in order to find particular words or phrases that are relevant to your current task. You can scan:

  • the introduction or preface of a text;
  • the first or last paragraphs of chapters;
  • the concluding or summarising chapter of a text;
  • the book index.

Skimming is the process of speedy reading for general meaning. Let your eyes skip over sentences or phrases which contain detail. Concentrate on identifying the central or main points. Use this technique to:

  • pre-view a selection of text prior to detailed reading (see below);
  • refresh your understanding of a selection of text following detailed reading.

Detailed reading and note taking

Once you have selected useful information, you can begin to read in detail. Note taking techniques provide a useful aid to reading. Use:

  • underlining and highlighting to pick out what seem to you the most central or important words and phrases. Do this in your own copy of books/texts or on photocopies – never on borrowed texts;
  • keywords to record the main headings as you read. Use one or two keywords for each main point. Keywords can be used when you don’t want to mark the text;
  • questions to encourage you to take an active approach to your reading. Record your questions as you read. They can also be used as prompts for follow up work;
  • summaries to check you have understood what you have read. Pause after a section of text and put what you have read in your own words. Skim over the text to check the accuracy of your summary, filling in any significant gaps.

These techniques encourage an active engagement with the text as well as providing you with a useful record of your reading. Avoid passively reading large amounts of text, it does not make effective use of your time. Always use a note taking technique to increase your levels of concentration and understanding.

Increasing your reading speed

It is more important to improve your reading skills than your reading speed. Being focused and selective in your reading habits will reduce the time you spend reading. If, in addition to using a range of reading skills you want to increase your reading speed, then the following technique will be of use.

The average reading speed is about 240-300 words per minute. I’m well below that currently. For the average reader, the eye fixes on each word individually.

It is easy for your eye to recognise 4 or 5 words in a single fixation without a loss of understanding.

The key to increasing your reading speed is not to increase the speed at which your eyes move across the page, but to increase the word span for a single fixation. A simple way of developing the habit of taking in more than one word per fixation is to take a page of text and divide it length ways into three with two lines drawn down the page. Using a pen or pencil as a pointer, read each line of text by allowing your eye to fall only in the middle of each of the three sections, as indicated by your pointer.

Developing your reading speed

  • Don’t worry about how quickly you are reading but instead, concentrate on reading the line in only three fixations.
  • As this becomes more natural, practise without drawing lines.
  • Later, reduce the number of fixations to two per line.
  • Once this increased word span becomes a comfortable habit, an increase in your reading speed will occur.

Summary

  • Have a clear focus for your reading. Set your reading goals.
  • Survey the text before you spend the time and effort involved in detailed reading.
  • Scan and skim to select the text for detailed reading.
  • Scan and skim after detailed reading to reinforce your understanding.
  • Use a form of note taking whilst reading in detail, to keep you concentrating, aid understanding and provide you with a record of your reading.
  • Using clear reading goals and a variety of reading skills is more important than increasing your reading speed.
  • To improve your reading speed, don’t increase the speed of the eye across the page, but increase the number of words the eye recognises in a single fixation.

I’ve given the above a go and I’ve still a way to go for speed reading. Thankfully, there are audio-books for the really slow readers amongst us. Even there, you can crank the speed up x1.5 or x2.0 or even higher.

Let me know what you think or indeed pass on your good reads.

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