Will learning to speed read help elevate your career?

I tend to read really quickly. An online test from Staples revealed that I read 488 words per minute, about 95% faster than the national average. Over the years, friends and colleagues have asked me to teach them how to read more quickly. Their reasoning is that with so much information coming their way, reading faster would help them in school or work.

In theory, it seems like a great idea. With so much information being thrown at people on a daily basis, would reading more quickly mean the ability to tackle and therefore move ahead more quickly and efficiently? Maybe.

A background on speed reading

In 1959, teacher Evelyn Wood came up with a method to teach speed reading. Her pointer system was so named since she used her fingers to glide along the page as she read. Wood herself read was said to have been capable of reading up to 2,700 words per minute when she read blocks or groups of words at a time instead of the individual words from left to right. But before anyone had even heard about Wood, Walter B. Pitkin wrote several business books including “The Art of Rapid Reading,” back in 1929.

Apps, newsletters and social media

In more recent times, a slew of speed-reading apps promise faster reading in no time flat, while productivity guru Tim Ferriss has his own speed reading technique.

Daily newsletters like The Skimm curate headlines and what their editors deem to be need-to-know information in easily digestible points. Their tagline is “Making it easier for you to live smarter.” But many critics have disagreed, instead, countering that dumbed down versions of newsy stories fuel many similar newsletters.

Then again, social media is its own version of speed reading providing pithy if sometimes inarticulate viewpoints of current events and controversies.

The value proposition

In his book “Language at the Speed of Sight” Mark Seidenberg contrasted the lure of trying to read more quickly with the reality of dwindling reader comprehension. He concluded, “The exact number of words per minute is far less important than the fact that this value cannot be greatly increased without seriously compromising comprehension.”

That word, it doesn’t mean what you think it does

How many times has this happened to you; you’re scrolling through your social media feed or sitting in a meeting when someone misuses a word so badly that you tune out everything else they ever say. For me, the frequently massacred use of mortified makes me despair for the future of communication. I also suspect that people are using or reusing words without understanding or context. That presents a potentially more helpful approach than simply reading more quickly. How about instead spending a bit more time trying to understand what you’re reading?

Reading comprehension is everything

Woody Allen once said “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” In other words, by zipping through a document, you might miss the nuance or intent. By only skimming the news, you could be missing valuable data that could help build your expertise and knowledge base. By scanning an email instead of thoroughly taking it all in, it’s entirely possible you’ll miss the whole point and send the wrong response.

In his book, “The Art of Rapid Reading,” Walter B. Pitkin wrote “You will get little or nothing from the printed page if you bring it nothing but your eye.” While we read on many more devices than the printed page, the need for comprehension remains.

Here’s a novel thought, instead of speed reading, make understanding what you read the priority. Maybe the goal should be to read it once at your own pace instead of reading in a hurry, responding and then having needless back and forth since someone along the way missed the point.

Tips on reading smarter, not faster

  • Turn off distractions: Set aside time to read a report or email and shut off the TV or text notifications or music or anything that leeches your attention from the task at hand.
  • Keep a draft: If you responded to an email in haste, leave it in draft for an hour and then revisit. It’s entirely possible that your response will change if you’re less stressed or not in a rush to answer.
  • Try not to anticipate what comes next: Unlike the latest thriller, trying to figure out a solution before you know the entire issue means you might tune out valuable clues. Allow any document or written communication speak for itself before deciding how to respond.