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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Stop Reading - Skim Dive Skim

Genie left a great comment on one of my favorite posts - Top Ten Reasons To Blog and Top Ten Not to Blog. She said:
"Because this is the way that we're going to learn in the future" - I love it!

Not sure about the 9 year olds though, my kids are downloading music and games and creating their own language on messenger. So not so certain about reading - no one reads these days - they play. Blogs are the last gasp before virtual interactive education takes over the schools. Plug in and turn off.
The 9 year olds reference is around a statement made by Karl Kapp - “my 9 and 11 year old sons have a deeper understanding of the tools” than you do.

Genie made me think a bit ... (thanks Genie) ...

While she is talking about kids in the future and their use of writing and reading, it really made me wonder:
Do we read anymore? Should we read anymore?
I know that I rarely really read anymore ... I skim and then dive in depth and then skim. I read as few words as possible. Just enough to get the general sense of what is being discussed. I miss a lot of detail, but I also am pretty good at being able to find the detail when I need to get to it.

I have a horrible habit of reading my email using this same reading style. This means that I sometimes miss important pieces of information buried somewhere in an email. [Edit - I originally wrote horrible. But I'm not so sure.]

And, in comparison to most executives that I know, I'm quite thorough. Send most executives a two page email and you are lucky if they skim the first two lines. Do they read their business books in depth? Did you read this? I don't think so, they find the single concept and then figure that the rest of the 200 pages give great support for that concept.

Genie is talking about kids, but in thinking about what she said and my own behavior, actual reading of items from start to finish is pretty much gone.
My bet is that many of you have skimmed right down to this item. Did you miss the question I asked in the paragraph above?

There's an embedded poll right here to show you how many people are skimming vs. reading.

My bet is most people, especially those reading blogs, are skimmers. And, they are right to be skimmers! So -

Stop reading.

Skim, dive, skim. That's the way to go.

Oh, and you need to have skills around understanding, keeping and refinding. You skim at a level that gives a basic understanding, allows you to make a decision around what it is, do you need this again and how you will store it away (if at all).

The only time you actually read something is when you need all the details for processing right then. Otherwise, it's a waste of time to go through all the details. You only need enough to understand what it is and get back to the details later.
Most often there is no payoff for reading. Skim dive skim is the best ROI on your time.


Anonymous said...

I have a horrible habit of reading my email using this same reading style. This means that I sometimes miss important pieces of information buried somewhere in an email.

Oh, man, did you hit a nerve with this one...

I am so sick of spending time crafting emails that get responses that make it obvious that the only thing the person read was the subject line.

For example:
- They ask a question that was directly answered in the second sentence of my email.
- They only answer 1 of the 2 questions I asked in a 3 sentence email.

I'm not talking about tomes here... I can understand how those might be skimmed. I'm talking about concise, mostly bullet-listed emails of a quarter-page or less.

It boggles my mind that someone would ask me to help them do something or for my opinion, and then not pay me the respect of actually paying attention to my response. Those people get rapidly decreasing respect from me. I'm talking to you directly in my emails. If I were standing in front of you saying the same thing, would you be actively listening?

And believe it or not, there are things that take more than seven words to adequately describe.

I'll stop the rant there, despite the scream of frustration fighting to get out of me, and move on...

It's obvious that I think the principle of skim-dive-skim doesn't work well for most email, however I completely agree it's appropriate for most articles or books, or other longer works where the text is not tailored to or specifically intended for the recipient.

Anonymous said...

If I were standing in front of you saying the same thing, would you be actively listening?

Alas, Jeff, many would not. They'd be too busy texting, twittering, or engaging in other chip-supported behavior that in earlier times would have been called "not paying attention to you."

I strongly suspect these folks are often the ones convinced they can drive and talk on the phone just fine, though they do wonder about that idiot in the SUV who just pulled into traffic without looking.

Ali Ast said...

I suppose my perspective really depends on what you are trying to achieve in reading an email, blog, book, etc.
As you stated Tony, "The only time you actually read something is when you need all the details for processing right then. Otherwise, it's a waste of time to go through all the details. You only need enough to understand what it is and get back to the details later."
However, the pace of the world seems to be racing at such a fast pace that I wonder how many can effectively do this without missing important parts of the message.
Just as Jeff posted about his emails. I completely agree...send someone a really long email and they are less likely going to read it. But if someone is asking for your input on something and you take the time to respond. They should throughly read it before sending you another email asking a question that was clearly stated in the email.
At the same time I do use the skim approach when researching information about a topic...otherwise with the amount of information found on the internet, magazines, etc it would take forever to go through it all.
I guess I simply wish the world was not going at such a fast pace that simple courtesy and listening to one another would be lost.

Anonymous said...

Although, I believe this is happening to most of us, mainly because there are more sources and immediacy is a prime trait, I think "real reading" has its place and it is even needed to actually achieve some deeper reflection. This is different than diving just to find a specific piece of information. To do real reading, usually I need to be away from the screen, and this is a healthy habit.

Chris Jackson said...

Of course we are used to reading web pages most of which are no longer sequential - you don't start at the top and follow through. So when we read an email or blog we may follow non sequential patterns. Newspapers and magazines are easy to read non-sequentially. I like to read books as well, keeps my eye in.

Anonymous said...

One of the courses I taught was how to write effective e-mails for a group of hotel management workers. There are two uses for e-mail: a record that either can be used for legal reasons or informational (i.e. you go back to look at what time the meeting was and what it is to cover) or as a means of communication. In both cases, e-mails for business should be written short, direct, with the most important information at the beginning or end (to make it easier to skim).

I agree with sporto, that real reading needs to be done away from the screen (eye fatique from the backlighting).

I also feel, as Chris mentioned that we no longer read sequentially. However, I would contend that some of us never did and we have embraced the web because it was more natural to use than the way we were taught to read (sequentially). I have always read ahead, gone back to find details, and yes, read the end of a book or novel. I hated reading as a child, and was one of those kids that preferred games to a book. However, as my family will attest, I am never without a book in my hands these days whenever I have a free minute.

I find reading relaxing and calming to my brain. I don't think reading will ever leave our culture.

Anonymous said...

Well I am writer and a reader. I am amazed when I read an e-mail sent to several people that I am often the only one who picked up on some important points. Then at least one person in the group will say, "Well, I really didn't read it." I have to say, I am usually not surprised, but also not terribly impressed by that comment.

However as a writer of anything, you must absolutely be aware of this. As v. yonkers said, keep your e-mails short and direct. And I would say to put a request for information, a response, or whatever, in the subject line and/or the first line of an e-mail. Also use bold, headings, bullet points etc. to help the skimmers get the most important information. This goes for all writing anymore - online courses, manuals, instructions, etc.

Maria Hlas

Tony Karrer said...

Wow - the poll results make it appear I stand alone on this. Or - only readers read that there was a poll? Is this a skewed audience? Are folks in our world more readers than skimmers?

Jeff - let me confess that, yes, I'm that person. And like you I also get those responses - the person didn't read to the second line.

In my defense, if the email appears to be an FYI around a topic (Virgina calls this out well), then I assess whether I need to read the whole thing. I may jump to the bottom to see if there are action items. However, if these are details I need ... like in a case just before I'm typing this ... I certainly read the details.

I recognize it stinks to have to consciously think about putting something at the start that tells the person the point of the email and what's expected of them.

Dave - uh, oh. I sometimes find myself wanting the person in front of me to get to the point. I also own an SUV, and do talk on the phone. Man, I'm in trouble here.

Oh, and group emails - they are the most likely to be FYIs. And there is also this game of - whomever responds first is going to have to do the work. So, let me not respond.

And, yes, you cannot assume that someone reads the middle of the email. Even though it appears that almost everyone responding to the poll does.

Anonymous said...

Tony, you kind of asked for it, with the faintly hyperbolic "no one reads anymore."

There are those individuals who wish the get-to-the-bottom-line folks would pay attention to one or two details along the way. In my experience, more than a few "executives" aren't at particularly high strength in getting to a point. They're just less likely to get interrupted.

I certainly agree that a lot of organization communication meanders (and blogs are by no means immune), to say nothing of exhibiting bizspeak (in our new paradigm we will build our brand going forward so that we can deliver value at the end of the day) and the soupy dodginess of passive verbs.

I meant the suv/phone/maneuvering crack as a combination. Most people don't have the mental bandwidth to effectively talk on the phone while effectively controlling 3,000 pounds of vehicle moving at 66 feet per second.

Tony Karrer said...

Dave - yes, I guess I'm asking for it. I've confessed. Skimming has spread in my life. But I don't think I'm alone, nor do I think I'm necessarily wrong to allow it to spread.

And you really cracked me up with - "In my experience, more than a few 'executives' aren't at particularly high strength in getting to a point. They're just less likely to get interrupted."

So true!

Whew - at least there's now 2 people who admit to skimming.

Sarah Stewart said...

I have to own up to being a skim reader. I always have been, but I have noticed that since I got into blogging and using igogle and readers that I have got worst. For me, it is about trying to get the most out of a limited amount of time. But some times, I know I miss the important details to my detriment.

Anonymous said...

Heh... I had to come back to say that I just finished writing a long email to a large group of people (yes, I used bold headings, italics, and color to draw attention where needed). This time I included a request for volunteers about two-thirds of the way through the email. The funny thing is that I was counting on the skimmers to skip right over that section, which would leave me with a smaller, more manageable group of volunteers who were more detail oriented -- which is exactly what I want.

We'll see if I've judged my audience correctly...

Tony, I suspect your poll is going to be skewed to those who don't skim much, especially if they're reading from an RSS feed - I know the poll didn't show up in Google Reader and I had to click through to the site to respond. That, plus I do think that the audience you've got here is probably a bit skewed in the detail direction anyway.

DaRightRev said...

I would not support the practice of skimming "les Miserables" or "The Sound and the Fury." And there is at least as much useful information in those books as any business book I have ever read, but you won;t get it from the Table of Contents.

If people do not read email, perhaps it isn't the right tool for the intended purpose. Is it more of a convenience for the sender, and more of a burden for the recipient? I have often noticed that behavior is purposeful: perhaps people who don't read lengthy emails would prefer to have the convenience of a face-to-face discussion where topics could be sorted, resolved, and guided by the previsou answers in real time.

Anonymous said...

Let's face it though, some of the "classics" (I'm thinking of Ethan Frome which I had to suffer through in 8th grade) deserve to be skimmed!

Tony Karrer said...

Virginia - I'm glad you said that. Gave me a good laugh. And you are not alone in that opinion.

Anonymous said...

I believe the reason we go for skimming is the flood of the information in the new information age we are living in. we need to skim in order to follow up with the different kinds of publications. but do you think that profs read the whole thesis? or the whole comperhensive exams?

In the same vien, we are doing a lot of multitasking nowadays:for example, listening to the news while we are checking our e-mails.

on the other hand,
i do not believe that kids are not reading. what about Harry Potter? what i believe is that the new generation adapt skills that the new technologies require.