Joanna Gutmann shares the different speedreading techniques that can help you work through meeting papers more quickly
It’s common to hear people grumble about the amount of reading involved in meetings, whether they are the participants who must read the papers, the chair focused on good decision-making or the Assistant striving for professionalism and needing an understanding of the items to be minuted.
Speedreading dates back to the 1950s, when Evelyn Wood observed the practices of naturally fast readers and developed a system that is still popular today. Whilst few Assistants would necessarily want to build reading speed for its own sake, or for entry to competitions, the techniques that are used can be applied to business meetings with a significant saving in time combined with a greater understanding of the material.
There is no single speedreading method. Increased speed is gained through a range of techniques which can be used individually, but it is when they are combined that the benefits are really seen. They can all be applied to reading on paper or on a laptop or tablet. Although most people find reading on a screen less effective, there is seldom a choice.
Work your way through the techniques below. Take each in turn and consciously use it, maybe even slowing a little until you feel confident with it. Once you’re using it without thinking, move on to the next, combining them as you learn.
Read (don’t talk)
Vocalising is the habit of either muttering the words you’re reading, just moving your lips or mouth or saying the words ‘in your head’. It will slow your reading speed down to your speaking speed. Try to break the habit by physically distracting your mouth by holding a pencil between your lips or chewing gum. If you’re hearing the words, try to read for meaning. So, if you read, ‘All participants must complete the register of interests’, focus on the picture of them all signing, or the appearance of the register completed. It’s a difficult habit to break, but it can be done with practise.
Engage your brain
It’s easy to just pick up a paper or open a document and start to read, but your mind is still on the report you were previously reading, or the conversation you’ve just finished. Before you start reading, just flick or scroll through the document to get a feel for the layout and style; is it like a book that you’d just put back on the shelf? Or would you go to pay for it? There’s no choice with papers for a meeting, but the move to focus on the upcoming document is useful.
Ask yourself why you’re reading it; is it for a general overview to help with minutes? Or do you need to understand in order to make an informed decision? Clarify your purpose in reading before you start.
As you read this paragraph, be aware whether your eyes want to jump back a couple of words occasionally… or even to start the paragraph again. ‘Backskipping’ (a few words) or ‘rewinding’ (to restart the paragraph) are common habits. Don’t do it! You’re reading extra words and reading them out of order, so you’ll be slower and understand less. Always read ‘forwards’, keep going until the end of the paragraph and only then go back if you haven’t understood. Many of my delegates are surprised that they backskip and rewind without realising, and breaking the habit immediately increases reading speed.
Watch the eyes of someone reading and you’ll see that the movement isn’t smooth but a series of micro jumps as they ‘fix’ on each word, usually for around a quarter of a second. So, a line of 18 fixes will take around 4.5 seconds to read. If you can cut down the number of fixes, you’ll cut down the time. Try reading the sentence below, slowly and carefully, landing once in the middle of each bold phrase, seeing it as one word.
The health and safety risk is on the agenda for the March meeting which, coincidentally, will be held at Westgate House.
As you start this, aim to fix once on familiar phrases and word groupings, but the ultimate aim is to fix once on two or three words at a time throughout the document.
Chunking utilises your peripheral vision – your ability to see more than what you are directly focused on. Try staring at something outside the window; without looking away, just be aware of all the other things you can identify around you… you’d know if they moved. Clipping uses that peripheral vision to save you a few words on each line by ignoring the first and last word (or two). Have a look at a paragraph in a report and read it carefully, starting from the second word on each line and finishing on the penultimate. The combination of context and your peripheral vision allowing your brain to ‘see’ the missing words should enable you to read without loss of comprehension.
You might see someone using a ruler under a line to help them focus, but that is hiding the upcoming text and depriving the peripheral vision of the chance to help them understand. Try using the ruler but instead ‘overline’ – hide the text you’ve already read. Try reading a paragraph like this, but the real jump in speed will come if you use that ruler to really drive you forwards. Move it down at a speed that forces you to read a little faster. This can be useful when you need to push on with a document that isn’t that interesting!
Running a finger under the words sends a rather negative impression of reading ability in many cultures, but using a guide (ideally a skewer/chopstick or retracted ball pen) can help you focus and speed up.
Ask a colleague to follow the edge of an imaginary circle in front of them. Few people will achieve smooth eye movement; most follow a jerky, irregular movement. Now ask them to draw the circle in the air and watch their fingertip, and their eye movement is likely to be significantly smoother. Obviously, the existence of a line of text goes some way to creating a guide, but the eye moves more smoothly when it is following something, so a moving pointer supports effective reading.
First, try reading a paragraph with the guide running smoothly along under each line. Remember to use it a little in from each margin to help you with clipping as you read. Now move the pointer faster so you have to increase your speed to keep up with it. Like overlining, using it to drive you will result in many more words read in each minute.
Get the speed habit
Your eye is capable of much faster movement than you need for reading, and your brain is capable of processing information much faster than everyday reading speed. Try using Word Runner in a Kindle/app and you will probably be surprised at how fast you can take in the meaning at quite a high speed. To get into the habit of moving your eye faster, use a metronome (there are plenty of free apps) and set it to 124 bpm. Read at a speed which starts a new line on the beat. As soon as you’ve got that, increase the speed to 132 bpm and carry on. Keep increasing the speed by 8 bpm until you reach your maximum. Return to the exercise later or the next day and drop the speed a little, then carry on increasing the rate. Use this technique from time to time to maintain a good normal speed or use it when you need a bit of a push as you read.
You are likely to find that some of the techniques will be used all the time, perhaps even when reading for leisure and relaxation. Others (e.g., ‘overlining’) come into their own when you really need a push to get through a document, either because of tiredness or boredom with the subject.
As with the development of any skill, it takes application and practise to improve. Good luck with your speedreading!