Techniques on How to Read Faster and Understand what you are reading

Woman reading a book

INTRODUCTION

Is essential information your enemy or ally?  A recent Xerox™ study determined that you must read at least 1,000,000 words per week just to stay abreast of new information. Think about that, 1,000,000 words a week!  Yet, the average reading speed is only about 200 words per minute. Since the decisions you make each day are only as good as the information you base them upon, your information glut is a serious detriment to your professional performance. As the world’s fastest reader (Guinness, 1990), I will share some of my accelerated learning secrets that will empower you with the learning skills necessary for staying atop of your essential information.

THE ROOTS OF SLOW READING

            You already possess the ability to rapidly read essential information. It is an innate ability. Let me prove this to you. Think about how much information your brain must process while driving an automobile on a highway. It must view and analyze the motions of the surrounding cars, road conditions, weather conditions, read signs, and at the same time avoid hitting animals or people who might cross the road. Instead of being overwhelmed by all this information you become so bored that you might turn on the radio, talk to other passengers, or make cell phone calls. If your brilliant brain is so adept at swiftly reading a road during a drive, then why can’t it read text just as quickly and easily?  The answer is simple. Instead of seeing a book during reading, your brain hears a voice that pronounces the word sounds printed on the page. Quite simply, you don’t see a book—you hear it. Yet, vision is faster and more powerful than hearing. By becoming a more visual reader you will instantly increase your reading speed. Let’s begin this process together.

BECOMING A MORE VISUAL READER

Watch a child read and what do you see?   You see them reading words one letter at a time, such as D O G spells dog. As an adult, your brain barely notices the letters appearing on the page. Instead you see entire words like dog, or even entire phrases like “hot dog”, “ice cream”, or “United States of America”. “United States of America” contains four distinct words, almost the width of an entire column in a textbook or newspaper. If you can see four words then why can’t you see entire lines, sentences, paragraphs, or even an entire page at a glance?   You can!   You just need a simple system that improves your brain’s visual reading efficiency. The first step is understanding how your magnificent brain is decoding text on the unconscious level. Once you become conscious of this unconscious activity you will be able to speed it up to a higher reading speed still being able to comprehend, store, and recall essential information.

As a student, I trained to become a Psychobiologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton. During my studies I learned how our brain uses schema, or more simply our map of the world, whilst decoding text. Each of us has a lifetime of experiences stored in our memory map. Stored experiences that writers expect us to possess and use while reading.

Let’s use an example to learn how you use schema to interpret text. Imagine I wrote a story and told you, “the woman wore a red dress.”  I would expect you to know what I meant by the word woman.  As a reader you don’t expect me to explain to you that a woman is a female. You already know this information. You are using your schema or life database to read this text.

Probably the best way to demonstrate schema’s important role in making text meaningful is by giving you a paragraph to read that is completely lacking any schematic clues.

This is an easy thing to do. If possible, you will do it at home, but you can always go somewhere else if it is necessary. Beware of overdoing it. This is a major mistake and may cost you quite a bit of money. It is far better to do too little than attempt to do too much. Make sure everything is properly placed. Now you are ready to proceed. The next step is to put things into another convenient arrangement. Once done you’ll probably have to start again real soon. Most likely, you’ll be doing this for the rest of your life

It’s pretty tough decoding this text since it lacks any schematic clues. Did you guess that this paragraph is discussing doing a load of laundry?    Picture the word laundry printed right about this text as a single word title and read this passage once again. Isn’t it amazing how much clearer this passage becomes simply by adding a single schematically significant word?   Even a single schematic clue can make text understandable. From this example it is clear that schema plays a major role in making text meaningful, but how do you know where to look for schematic clues while reading?   We find this out in the next section.

LOCATING & REMEMBERING TEXTUAL SCHEMATIC CLUES

Both nouns and verbs in text constitute its schematic clues. Nouns offer information about the people, places, and things while verbs describe any actions that are taking place. The first step towards increasing your reading speed is to make a habit of looking for the people, places, and things doing the activities. Fortunately, you brain is well suited for selectively filtering any information that you consciously command it to detect. Let me prove this to you with a simple experiment.

Take a look about you and make a mental picture of all the red objects you can see. Look very carefully and make a detailed map of these items. Next you are going to close you eyes and picture everything around you that is colored blue. Notice what you brain just did?   It said, “wait a minute, you told me to look for red so how am I suppose to remember anything colored blue?”   Your brilliant brain searches and finds exactly what you tell it to look at. The same thing transpires while reading. You must tell you brain to look for people, places, and things and their actions. And it will seek and it will find.

There are some very useful filters that instantly empower your brain with the ability to spot important schematic information. These are the same filters you were taught to use in school when writing. These filters are the questions:  who, what, where, when, why, and how. While reading you must constantly ask yourself these questions to get the following related outcomes:

  • who is this about
  • what is this about
  • when is this occurring
  • where is this taking place
  • why is this important
  • how can I use this information?

A simple and effective way for remembering this information is to picture these key questions floating in your mind on cartoon shaped balloons linked to their appropriate data. The more visual you make your important information the faster you will be able to read and later recall it.

For example, if I am reading about Paul Revere riding his horse to warn the Minute Men about the impending British invasion during the American Revolution, then I would do the following:

  • I see Paul Revere’s name pasted on the who balloon,
  • I paste a picture of him warning the minute men on the what balloon,
  • I see him riding into the woods on my where balloon.
  • It is during the American Revolution so I paste this on my when balloon
  • He does this because he is a patriot so I paste this on my why balloon.
  • Paul is using a horse to accomplish his task so this gets pasted on my how balloon.

The following is a graphic illustration of what I am suggesting you do in your imagination:

Schema description

Now that you can easily spot schematic clues you are ready to learn how to use these clues to increase your reading speed.

USING SCHEMA TO INCREASE YOUR READING SPEED

            Consider this very important statement:  authors publish text for a group of people, but you must read that text as an individual. A writer offers all the information they believe that anyone reading their text might require, because a writer can’t anticipate what every possible readers’ map of a subject might contain. On the other hand, you tend to read text on subjects that are relevant to your work or hold special interest to you. This mean that you often have a map of many of the important points found in many of the texts you must read, and you can use this map or schema to reach incredibly high speeds in much of your reading.

Ironically, many individuals actually slow down when encountering familiar or easy material. It is human nature to seek out and feel comfortable with familiar surroundings. For example, what might happen if you were reading a really complicated, boring, and challenging Chemistry text, and then found a really interesting, familiar, and easy section in that text. Would you be in a hurry to finish this easy and interesting portion of the text so you could focus upon difficult and boring information, or might you spend more time that you should staying in this comfortable and familiar text?   Most people make the mistake of wasting valuable reading time focused upon things they already know, rather than productively using their time to learn new and necessary information. You won’t make this mistake ever again. In the future, as soon as you spot familiar or easy information, you will increase your reading speed and use your time to learn new, unfamiliar, important information. There are many significant applications of this point in business that I would like to share with you.

Imagine you are reading your daily newspaper. In business, it is essential to stay on top of timely and important information. Yet, you often hear the news on the radio on the drive to work, or perhaps view it on television. By the time you read the newspaper, much of the information it contains has already been learned. Spend more time on the news that you didn’t know about, and you will find yourself becoming a more productive newspaper reader. This is a skill I’ve shared with companies like Prudential Realty. Information changes daily in real estate, and good brokers search for leads in the newspapers, while keeping abreast of economic changes and changes in the law that can affect their industry. They know that failure to keep abreast can hurt their bottom line just as using that information correctly can increase their profitability. This same principal holds true for newsletters, and magazines that often contain sections of very familiar information.

Your daily mail, and e-mail are another area where you can put this reading strategy into practice. Many executives have their mail screened by others, because they don’t have the time to pour through a pile of unopened mail. How often has someone made a poor judgment call and not shown you a piece of mail that you would have judged important?   Scan you mail swiftly looking for things that require your personal attention, or letters that are responding to your personal requests. Look for mail that can be tossed, postponed, or delegated to someone else. Using schematic clues, you will find yourself quickly getting through your mail more efficiently than any assistant could possible accomplish. During a recent program I gave in Montreal for Cisco systems, I was told how they were receiving as many as 300 E-mails a day that seriously compromised their time and efficiency. Learning to speed read their e-mail greatly cut down on this waste of their time. Ironically, many of the e-mails were sent simply to notify people that a letter was on the way. You can significantly cut down on this waste in your company by making people aware that they should either send their letter by e-mail or use the. regular mail. Have them stop cluttering up your associates’ time by sending e-mails announcing that regular mail is on the way!

The schematic technique we have just learned works well for familiar or easy material, but not everything you read is easy or familiar material. We need a different strategy for speed reading unfamiliar information. It is important to remember that only about 40% of a text is information, and that the rest is explanation. Explanations take the form of stories, anecdotes, examples, and illustrations. Writers use these structures to clarify, simplify, and exemplify the information they are offering to you. However, you will often find that you understand points made in text and don’t require any additional assistance. When this happens, you can quickly skim these embellishments and move onto the next new and significant point in your text. Only when you find yourself confused or unable to understand a technical point should you take advantage of the extra information the writer included to help make difficult text easier for you to learn.

Let me give you an example of how to use this approach in unfamiliar material. One of the most successful books ever published is the “Power of Positive Thinking.”  The structure of this book is often used by other self-help book authors. First, there is a paragraph describing a potential problem. Next, there is a paragraph describing how to solve this problem. Finally, there is a 28-page story about someone who has the problem and successfully used the solution. Do you really need to read these 28 pages if you already understand how to solve the problem?   Absolutely not!  You won’t waste your valuable and limited learning time doing this either. Instead, only use this additional help if and when required. You will find new zip in your reading speed with essentially the same comprehension. Next, we shall deal with the secret to maintaining an alert, focused, and positive cognitive state that is essential for successfully conducting business.

ESTABLISHING A POWERFUL LEARNING STATE

No matter how well you learn material, you will not benefit from your knowledge if you become too tired. There is a simple technique that we’ve developed that will enable you to instantly tap into the unlimited energy     necessary for successful business operations. To get optimum results from this exercise it is important that you stand up and also imagine that your energy is increasing as you perform each of the following steps:

    • touch you left hand to your right shoulder
    • touch your right hand to your left shoulder

repeat these steps 3X

    • touch you left hand to your right knee
    • touch your right hand to your left knee

repeat these steps 3X

    • raise your hands high over your head
    • scream out enthusiastically “I feel great
    • scream out YES while squeezing your right thumb tightly and pulling it towards your right side

repeat all of the above steps 3X

This really can turn up your energy when done properly. Why does it work?   It is based upon the time-honored principle of classical conditioning from Psychology. Think back to school when you learned about how the great Russian Psychologist Pavlov conditioned a dog to drool while hearing a bell ring. Pavlov consistently rang a bell each time the dog was fed. Eventually, just hearing the bell elicited a drooling response from the dog. In exactly the same way, squeezing your thumb and saying “I feel great, YES,” each time you create a high energy state will make this gesture a powerful stimulus for releasing high your own limitless energy.

This is an incredible tool for you to use when you need instant energy. Imagine having to work late at night, or attending a long demanding meeting, and suddenly needing some extra energy to accomplish your task. Squeezing your thumb and saying, “I feel great, YES”, (inside your head silently) will release a flood of much needed energy. This is one of many tools we have developed to help you create a peak state for successful business practice. Next, we shall learn an important technique for remembering and recalling essential information.

INTRODUCTION TO SPEED MEMORY

Have you ever heard of the book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People?”   Many business leaders are familiar with it, and if you aren’t I would urge you to consider reading it (of course using the techniques described in this article). Can you please tell me how you have successfully used habit number three?   Of course not!   You don’t remember it. It is amazing how much money you and your company invests in training and self development programs when the next day all that is remembered was what a wonderful training you had yesterday. Why is your brain so quickly deleting this important information, when it can easily remember the words to a Beatle song from 30 years ago after only hearing a few notes played on the radio?   The answer to this question can be summed up in one-word emotion. Understanding the importance of emotion upon memory will instantly switch on your brain’s limitless learning ability.

Your brain is programmed to delete information that is unimportant. One of the key elements that makes your brain view information as significant is the emotional impact that information has upon your life. Let me prove this to you in an experiment. Try and remember all the places you’ve ever driven in an automobile during your lifetime. What happens?   You can’t do it!   Let’s ask a very similar question and see how well your memory works. Try to remember a time when you had an accident, saw an accident, or received a speeding ticket. Notice how much easier it was to remember this information?   Why?   Getting a ticket, having an accident, or seeing an accident generates a huge amount of emotion. This emotion instantly glues information into your permanent memory. Let’s see how to use your emotional glue to permanently learn “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, that were so difficult to remember at the start of this section.

To glue information using emotion is simple. First you need a powerful picture that effects your emotions, and secondly you need a place to put that information. We shall use our body parts that are already familiar to us as places for storing our very powerful emotional pictures linked to our 7 habits. This drill was designed by my colleague Marcus Conyers for a program we co-created.

The first habit is “be proactive.”   Picture a bee stinging you on the forehead. Experience the pain and discomfort that the sting causes. Now when you think about your forehead, you will immediately remember the bee sting and think “be proactive.”  See how easy it is to link information using emotional glue?

The next habit is “begin with the end in mind”.  We shall glue this information onto our shoulders. Picture a start signs on your right shoulder, and a stop sign on your left shoulder. When you think about your right shoulder you will easily remember the word start or begin. When you think about your left shoulder you will easily remember to stop or end. Putting this together helps us remember to “begin with the end in mind.”   Try it. Picture the start and stop signs sitting on your shoulders and say aloud, “begin with the end in mind” It is very important that you picture these images on your shoulders while saying this aloud.

The next habit is “first things first.”  Picture a golden Olympian medal hanging over your heart. The medal says, “first place.”   When you think about this first-place medal on your heart it will help you remember “first things first.” 

            Let’s review. What comes to mind when you think about your forehead?   “Be Proactive.”  What do you remember when you think about your shoulders?    “Begin with the end in mind.”    What are you remembering when you think about your heart?  “First things first.”  Great you’ve already anchored several of the seven habits into your memory.

The next habit is “think win-win.”    How do we know the winner at a car race?   The winner is flagged at the end of the race to connote their winning. Picture this checkered flag sitting on your stomach and waving as you think “think win-win.”    Each time you picture your stomach you will remember this habit.

Our next habit is “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  Picture a magnifying glass sticking out from your left side. We use a magnifier to examine a clue and understand it better. When you think about your magnifier sticking off your left side you will remember “seek first to understand”. Next picture a telephone sticking off your right side. You use a telephone to talk and be understood by people. When you picture your telephone sticking off your left side you will remember “then to be understood.”  

            Let’s recall our pegs. Imagine the bee stinging your forehead and you will remember: “be proactive.”  Picture the start and end signs on your shoulders and remember “begin with the end in mind.”  Picture the gold medal on your heart and remember “first things first.”  Picture the checkered flag on your stomach and remember “think win-win.”  Finally, picture your magnifying glass on your right side and your telephone on your left side and remember, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

The next habit is the word “synergize” Think about the bunny on the battery advertisement who is banging on a drum, and what does he say?  Energize. Imagine drumming on your rear while saying the word “synergize”. Picture it. Say it. It will glue itself to your rear, and easily be remembered whenever you picture this part of your anatomy.

Our last habit is “sharpen your saw.”    Have you ever felt in business that a competitor was trying to saw you off at the legs?    Just picture a sharp saw cutting your thighs and think “sharpen your saw”. Instantly you remember this last important principle.

OK, it’s time to remember all seven habits. Think about your forehead and the bee sting and immediately recall, “be proactive.”  Picture your shoulders and you remember:  begin with the end in mind. Picture your heart and remember:  first things first. Picture your stomach and remember “think win-win.”   Picture your left and right side and remember: “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”   Picture your rear and remember: “synergize”. Last picture your thighs and remember to “sharpen your saw.”

Congratulations. You now can remember the 7 habits. Doesn’t it make sense that all corporate training and personal learning should include a focus on retaining and recalling information and not simply disseminating it?    Linking this memory technique to your schematic technique for increasing reading speed will help you read and retain more essential information than ever before. Remember the decisions you make each day are only as good as the information you base them upon. Using the tools, you’ve just learned and the many others described on my website can help you make better, more productive decisions, and fewer costly mistakes.