Perspective - Tackle that mountain of reading - Almost every development in office communication has meant more reading, not less It's not going to stop, says Winston Fletcher, so learn to do it as efficiently as possible.
Bumph. Piles of the stuff. More and more of it all the time. There is no escaping it.
As Bill Gates stuffs zillions of dollars into his cyber-moneybox and as technology advances, it seems natural that the volume of bumph an executive needs to read should diminish. But technology is not to be trusted.
Except for the telephone, almost every development in office communication has meant more reading, not less. Think about it: typing, duplicating, photocopying, fax, even e-mail. Most e-mails are just substitutes for telephone calls - though some aren't substitutes for anything at all and have only been written because the author had time to waste. Result: more bumph to read.
Apart from listening (and Braille, of course ), your eyes are the only way to absorb data. That means reading. There's no point in grumbling about it. Unless you decide to give up managerial life and become a hermit, it's never going to stop. So it is well worth learning to do it as efficiently and painlessly as possible.
The skill of skimming
Research has shown that, on average, people read about 200 words per minute and retain about 40% of what they read. If you go on a speed-reading course, you can increase that rate to 600 words per minute and a retention score to 70%. Unfortunately, research also shows that unless you keep in training by using additional speed-reading techniques, you will slowly slip back to your normal levels of speed and retention.
Several basic techniques of speed-reading are still worth learning:
First, and most essential, learn to skim. When you enter a room, your eyes and brain instantly take in an overall, general impression without assimilating the detail. After you have been in the room a few moments, you will begin to absorb things of particular interest to you.
Effective skim reading is much the same. When you first receive a report or file, whiz through it to obtain an overall general impression of the contents without trying to assimilate the detail. Then go through it again quite quickly, allowing your eyes to linger over anything that may be relevant. By now, you will know which parts you need to read carefully, if any.
Lots of documents can be consigned to the bin at this point. Highlight any items that demand further study - there probably won't be many.
As we all know only too well, most of the documents we read contain little that is important to us and many contain virtually nothing at all.
Use a pointer. In the same way that children use a finger to help them follow the text, use a pencil or ruler beneath the line and move it quickly.
Studies have shown that this can increase reading speed by 100%, while also improving comprehension and memory.
Reduce subvocalisation. If you mumble the words to yourself as you read (psychologists call it subvocalisation) this is probably the greatest impediment to faster reading. A recommended way to stop is to hum a tune while you read. You will soon begin to read by sight instead of sound.
And then you will be able to stop humming.
Sit up straight
Maintain good posture. If you like to read with your feet propped up on the desk, don't expect to achieve a fast reading rate. Poor posture can impede circulation, and concentration drops. It is best to read sitting upright in a straight-backed chair, with the document 15 to 24 inches in front of you, set at a 45-degree angle, with all points equidistant from your eyes.
Schedule reading time. The most inefficient way of reading is under pressure from constant interruptions. You lose your place, lose the thread of the argument, lose your memory of the last sentence and lose your temper.
If you have a hefty tome to read, block the time out in your diary and brook no interruptions. If that won't work, you will have to take it home to read it.
Get the ambience right. Try not to have other important documents all over the desk or they will keep catching your eye and distracting you.
Don't have the temperature too high - temperatures above 70% are soporific and not conducive to concentration.
Don't read after a heavy lunch - less still a boozy one. You will drop off faster than you can say Pouilly Fuisse.
Don't try to read in bad light. We all do so occasionally and it is ludicrously dumb.
Relax your eyes. During extended reading periods, look up occasionally and focus on distant objects. This will relax your eye muscles and help you to carry on reading without fatigue. Alternatively, 'palming' your eyes by closing them and cupping them with your hand to produce total blackness will provide them with a valuable moment of relaxation and rest.
Let others do the reading
Much the best way to reduce reading time is not by means of any speed-reading technique or technology but by getting other people to do your reading for you. Don't try, neurotically, to read everything yourself.
Pass on anything you can to specialists - solicitors, market researchers, accountants - or to subordinates. Make it politely but patently clear you will rely on their perusal of the material - so woe betide them if they fail to bring anything significant to your attention.
Finally, cull your name from distribution lists from time to time. Yet, in an understandable enthusiasm to read less, be sure you don't throw out the baby with the bath water.
Winston Fletcher is chairman of advertising group Bozell UK and a visiting professor at Lancaster University.