Has it happened to you that your boss passes by your desk with some new assignments, and then adds: “Oh, and by the way, can you go over these reports?”, while pouring 500 pages of printed paper onto your desk? And does that mean you’ll be stuck in the office until closing time? Or are you a student, battered down by all the reading assignments your professors give you? Or simply an avid, interested reader feeling like you can’t keep up with all the good books that are being published?

If you just answered “yes” to any of the previous questions, it might be time to change your reading strategy. While this post is mainly aimed at reading technical documents, the same principles can be applied to all kinds of reading. In fact, practicing these principles on your summer/airplane detective story reading is great exercise for cultivating this skill, which is the ability to absorb as much written information in as little time as possible. Others might simply call this speed-reading, but this skill not only deals with increasing your reading speed, but also with increasing your ability to filter out the most important parts of a document.

Understanding the elements of speed-reading

Certainly, reading faster will help you process information more quickly—that is easy to understand—so let’s start by looking at how exactly you can learn speed-reading. In this category, there are two skills to master: clustering words and skimming.

Skimming means extracting the important words from a block of text and ignoring all the rest. When you skim, your eyes highlight the words that signal the action, time, and/or location in a sentence. With that information, you have all you need to know. Smaller words, such as “an”, “and”, and such are of no use for your brain’s capacity to process the information you read.

Here’s how to skim: Let your eyes move past a block of text, line by line. Instead of reading every single word, practice filtering out the keywords within a snap of your fingers, and then move on. Afterwards, take a moment to digest what you just read, and see if you could grasp the meaning of the paragraph you studied.

Clustering means looking at several words together instead of at each word separately. The ability to cluster words together and process them jointly will greatly improve your reading speed. Clusters can form around the keywords that you skim. As you can imagine, skimming and clustering are processes that go hand in hand. Clustering increases both your speed and comprehension of a document.

Here’s how to cluster: Practice by looking at a number of words (ideally 3 to 4 at a time) together instead of looking at every word separately.

If you want to practice your speed reading, there’s a free online tool called Spreeder that you might like to use.

Reading smarter

If you need to distill information from a report, reading front to back is the least effective way of cutting through the crap and getting to the core of the story. To save time, read in a smarter way, so that you have a larger return on time investment for reading. If you are really pressed for time, you might wish to jump to the conclusions and summary section right away. An executive summary might be added, and sometimes you probably will only need to look at this part of a report.

Too often, however, if you need to work with the presented material, you will need to understand the reasoning behind the conclusions and be able to criticize these or continue working along the same lines. For those cases, reading the summary and conclusions won’t be sufficient. What you need is to use an approach of zooming from helicopter view to detailed view.

Start by reading the introduction section, and the summary and comments section: this is your first round of browsing through the document.

Then, go for a second round. Study the titles as well as the figures and graphs, along with their captions. In a well-written report, the most important information is invariably presented in the figures.

Your third round will go even deeper: For this round, you will read the beginning and ends of the paragraphs. If a document is written clearly, every paragraph starts with an introduction and ends with the conclusion of that paragraph.

Engage your memory

A final step to increase the amount of information you can absorb during a decreased amount of time is to engage your memory. When we read, our brain activity is typically dominated by an inner voice that reads the text out loud to us.

In a first step, you need to learn how to silence this inner voice. In a second step, you can now use the vacated computing power in your brain to actually engage your memory and thought patterns while you read. By doing so, you will greatly improve your understanding of the material you are working through.

As you see, by improving the speed at which you read, by fine-tuning the process that you follow to win information from a report and then finally by engaging your memory while you read, you have 3 tools to triple the speed at which you can crack a technical document.

Do you apply speed-reading techniques to hack your technical documents?

Following along with your finger is excellent if you want to read a little faster, but speed-reading is a different ball game. What is Something Useful You can Learn in 10 minutes that Would be Useful for the Rest of Your Life?

Featured photo credit: pfigvia Flickr

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