In our childhood, reading is typically taught at a single speed. Individuals often categorize themselves as slow readers if they take a considerable amount of time to finish a book, or as fast readers if they breeze through books like an ice cream cone on a hot day.
But as a leader, you must think about having more than one reading speed. If you’re reading everything at the same pace, you’re either wasting a lot of time and energy or risking making some critical mistakes.
Think of it like a dial where you can select very fast, fast, and slow for consuming and processing information. The trick is to learn to set your reading speed mode based on the kind of information you’re consuming.
Let me show you what I mean.
Reading Mode: Very Fast
Time is your most precious and scarce resource as a leader. So, when you’re given a 60-page PowerPoint presentation to process before a meeting, how should you attack that?
The answer is by reading at a high velocity. This is the same idea as the speed-reading technique. Your goal is to skim through material quickly so you can pull out the most interesting or relevant pieces of information without necessarily reading every word. The truth is that almost every presentation, white paper, or book has only a few key ideas embedded in them. Your goal is to uncover those gems in as little time as possible.
One of the best books I have read on writing an effective presentation that pulls out the key ideas well is The McKinsey Mind by Ethan Raisel. It describes how that vaunted firm makes presentations of complex topics clearly and compellingly and, more important, in a way that allows a reader to grasp the material quickly.
This technique is particularly effective when it comes to reading business books. It’s my rule that any CEO should be able to read a 200-page business book in under an hour.
You can do this by attacking the assignment strategically. The first step is to use the table of contents to give you a sense of what sections might be most interesting to you and where you might want to spend more time.
Many times, books also include an introduction or summary at the beginning that will give you a solid sense of what the material is all about and what your key takeaways might be.
Then, read the first few paragraphs in each chapter, especially the ones you’re most interested in, to get the gist.
Many business books also include end-of-chapter summaries, another great way to get right at the key nuggets the author wants to give you. Everything else, it’s safe to ignore.
Reading Mode: Fast
The following reading mode to consider is reading fast–which means still reading rapidly but taking a bit more time to get at the details. It might be just about what your standard reading rate might be.
This might mean working through 60 to 100 pages of material in an hour. Think something like a distribution agreement, copy for a marketing campaign, or an industry report you need to pull some facts from.
Reading at this rate, your goal is to identify key statistics and data. Many times, especially if you’re a visual learner, it can be effective to zoom in on graphs and charts to get what you’re looking for.
One of the things I do personally is look for things that are surprising or counterintuitive that are relevant to my business. I’ll then memorize those facts.
Reading fast is also a great way to tackle pleasure or easy reading. If I’m reading a spy novel for fun, say, I’m not worried about catching every word as long as I’m keeping up with the gist of the story.
Reading Mode: Slow
The third and final reading mode you’ll need as a leader is to learn to read slowly and carefully. The goal is to process the meaning and significance of every single word. From experience, this can be highly frustrating to people who think quickly.
But sometimes, you must slow your reading rate because every word matters and the language must be precise.
Examples might be when you’re reviewing critical contracts in which any mistake in the wording could result in million-dollar troubles. Other examples might involve other kinds of legal documents or even messages being sent to shareholders or regulatory bodies like the SEC.
Making the Most of Your Time
If you want to make the most of your time as a leader, you must learn to adjust your reading speed to the task.
It’s essential to recognize that you shouldn’t treat all information equally. Sometimes, you must ramp up your reading rate to quickly pull the most critical facts. On the other hand, there will also be times when you need to slow things up so you digest every word.
If you can build this skill, you’ll be amazed at how much extra time you can create for yourself.