Leadership

How to "Read" a Business Book

June 2012

A friend and I were talking recently, and I mentioned a book I found very worthwhile:

Friend: "You know, I have that book, and it's been sitting on my night stand for several weeks. Every time I pick it up, I read a few pages and then doze off. I really WANT to read it — I just don't have the time."

Todd: "I sense some guilt in what you just said. Do you typically try to read a book cover to cover?"

Friend: "Well ... yes, I do. Doesn't everyone?"

Todd: "No. In fact, I don't. I've learned some tips and techniques over the years that REALLY changed the way I approach selecting and reading books. Let me share those with you."

I shared my tips and tricks with my friend, and her outlook changed immediately! She could now view books in a different light, one which made a great difference in how she approached reading.

My friend found great value in what I shared, so I've organized and expanded my thoughts to share with a wider audience.

Background

I had my first "ah-ha" moment about techniques to better "read" a book in 2004, when I began my subscription to Maximum Impact, John Maxwell's outstanding series of monthly teaching talks. The very first CD I received was "Let's Talk About Books" (Volume 8, Number 8).

My second "ah-ha" moment came in January 2006, when I listened to Todd Duncan's "How to Read a Book" (Volume 4, Issue 1) lesson on that month's The Selling Edge (the series lasted until mid-2006).

Both talks helped me get over my "guilt" of not reading the entire book, and redirect my focus to getting as much value OUT of a book as QUICKLY as possible! Neither speaker advocated READING a book completely — both will skim, mark, highlight, and extract information, as they MINE the author's content for gold nuggets!

Once I heard this, I "got it" and thus began to view books differently — I not only changed how I went about "reading" a book, but also buying a book based on its VALUE to me instead of merely PRICE.

I have applied, adapted, and extended these lessons' techniques — and come up with my own, too — over the years to develop a comfortable and practical process. What follows are my techniques on how I now "read" a book — along the way, I'll also draw in specific comments from the original lessons. But first, two important caveats.

Caveat #1: Books for Learning and Application versus Pleasure Books

The techniques I am going to share apply to books you read intending to learn something so you can apply it to your life. The purpose here is to extract the MOST possible value from the book in the LEAST amount of time. Spoiler Alert — you do not need to read a book cover-to-cover to do that!

Reading only sections of mystery and thriller novels would destroy their value. Summer vacations are great to enjoy some leisurely, relaxed cover-to-cover reading of such books, so please do just that.

Caveat #2: Printed Books versus e-Books

This may come as a surprise, given my line of work — I'm not yet a fan of e-books. Even the best devices and reader applications do not currently allow me to make the book my own the way I can with a printed book. While searching and having a dictionary are very nice benefits of these devices, and highlighting generally works well, placing bookmarks and making notes still need refinement.

My biggest hesitation about e-books? Retention. There's something about actively marking up a printed book which increases my retention of its content. I can find patterns not readily apparent from the table of contents. I can cross-reference concepts on different pages. I can associate a summary with its detail. In short, I understand the structure of the book, and get inside the author's mind.

I also have some anecdotal proof of this. To help my staff and I develop our softer skills, we have picked relevant books and developed quizzes to test understanding and application to real-life examples. For one book, one person chose to use an e-book — while a good quiz score was achieved, it was the lowest one of all, and the quiz paper itself was messy. To me, this indicated trouble answering key questions, because of lower retention with the e-book.

So, I'll give e-books a little time to mature, and then look at them again.

Prep Work — Choose Your Books Wisely...

In his lesson, John Maxwell says, "Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body." He went on to share his thoughts on how he chooses books to read, with the overall comment — "Wisely choose your books as you would choose your friends." He chooses books based on authors he respects, and also by the eight subject areas of interest to him.

Why be so picky in choosing a book? To me, life is too short to read "bad" books — either for learning and application, or for pure pleasure. For business reading, I have come to like and trust the works of these fine authors — John Maxwell, Ken Blanchard, Seth Godin, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, and John Kotter.

Another way to choose books — see what's popular, because there's usually a good reason the book is selling well. Key sources for this include:

  • Bestseller lists and book reviews, such as those in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and USA Today.
  • Bestsellers on BarnesAndNoble.com (also consider their "Staff Picks") and Amazon.com.
  • Books recommended by two or more friends or colleagues.
  • Books summarized by Summary.com or AudioTech.com.

Even with these resources, before I buy a book, I still like to flip through it and look at the following items (all examples are from John Kotter's OUTSTANDING book, The Heart of Change, covered in my June 2011 book reviews.):

  • Back Cover: Who has endorsed the book in my hand? Be aware — some endorsements are based on a prior book, not the current one.
  • Table of Contents: Good organization of chapters, grouped by sections or themes, help me see the logical progression of topics.

Example of a Table of Contents in John Kotter's book "The Heart of Change"

  • Subsections and Subheadings: Highly structured books make it easier to find what's valuable.
  • Chapter Recap: This gets high marks from me! Key points summarizing the material give great value to busy readers.

Example of a chapter recap in John Kotter's book "The Heart of Change"

  • Callout Boxes: Interesting stories and valuable insights are frequently presented in these.

Callout box in John Kotter's book "The Heart of Change"

  • Tables: Writing your ideas in long-text is fairly easy. Distilling your thoughts into a table of key steps and major points? That's hard. Conciseness is always more difficult than verboseness.

An illustrative table in John Kotter's book "The Heart of Change"

  • Diagrams, Charts, or Illustrations: Remember, writing text is easy. The old adage — "A picture is worth a thousand words." — is very true. Using a diagram or even a simple doodle to show what you mean not only promotes understanding — it also improves the visual interest of the content. While diagrams typically illustrate ideas within a chapter, they can also show where that chapter's content fits into the overall process.

Chapter diagram from John Kotter's book "The Heart of Change"

  • Attractive Page Layout: Serif fonts for the main body text, characters of sufficient height, and wide outside margins (I like at least 3/4 of an inch) make the book easier to read and use.
  • Content: Do I like the author's style? Is it clear and concise? Is it interesting? How easily can I apply the ideas to my life?
  • Annotated Bibliography: Reading the author's comments on sources frequently gives me more insight into the topic, and may set me off to find and read another book.
  • Index: Does the book have one? While an index is becoming rare, an index helps me find where the major topics are covered.

Index from John Kotter's book "The Heart of Change"

...And with ROI in Mind

Why be so picky? Because not only is there a monetary investment for the book, there's also an investment of time to "read" it — more accurately, to get the most value out of it.

To me, a good book is actually a bargain — where else can I get an expert's ideas on a subject so inexpensively? For me, buying a $30 book and getting just three good ideas out of it meets my ROI criteria — especially if I can spot exactly WHERE those three good ideas are located, just by flipping through the book in the bookstore.

Get Ready — Have the Right Mindset

Before you start reading a book, ensure you go into it with the right mindset — "My job is to get the most value out of this book, in the least amount of time." Make a game out of it — set a timer for 30 minutes, and see how many ideas you've extracted when time is up.

Get Set — Have the Right Logistics

Todd Duncan's lesson has a GREAT checklist for logistics — I've provided my answers to his questions as an example.

  • Time: When do you read? I am most creative early in the morning, especially on weekends — so I like to wake up early, make coffee, and read before the rest of the family gets up.
  • Place: Where do you read? My favorite place to read is a side chair in my study at home, lap desk and coffee mug at the ready.
  • Pace: How fast and how many do you want to read? I typically keep several books on hand for reading, and juggle their "place in line" depending on what I need to learn.
  • Space: Where do you create your plan from what you've read? As I go through the book, I will make "To Do" items for myself in the front of the book — for example, "(1) p 74 - Scan and OCR!"
  • Action: When are you going to apply what you've read? I typically read books on a "Just In Time" (JIT) basis, so application is usually fairly quick.
  • Supplies: What items do you need to mark ideas you've found? In my lap desk, I keep a memo pad, a pad of large sticky notes, and a zippered pencil pouch containing pens and highlighters of various colors, small tape flags (4 colors), an extra pencil, and an eraser.

Go! — Mark It Up

I then begin to find the value in the book. I'll read the first one or two chapters, which typically set the stage for the rest of the book — after that, I may jump directly to the chapter with the ideas I need to find and apply, or continue straight on through the book. How I mark up a book:

  • Label Idea Structure: I put circled numbers in the margin to visually show structure. A good author makes this explicit — for example, "There are three ways to go about this. First, you can ... Second, there is ... One final way is ..." If an author has not done this, I have to look a little harder.
  • Cross-Reference Ideas: If a key idea appears in two different places, I will cross-reference each occurrence to the other's page number.
  • Highlight: I use a yellow highlighter to highlight key phrases or ideas.
  • Comment: I comment liberally in the margins.
  • Side Flag: If a phrase or idea is especially important, I'll draw a vertical line beside it, and place a small tape flag near it, with the colored end sticking out the side of the book.
  • Top Flag: If a page has many important ideas, I'll place a small tape flag sticking out the top of the book.
  • Action Items: For key action items, I'll write those on the book's inside front cover, noting the page number and action step.

John Maxwell provides some excellent advice for this step — "If I am not marking up a book very quickly, I put it aside very quickly!"

Think It Through

To John Maxwell, a book has two messages. The first is the author's intent — the thesis of the book. The second is the meaning the reader finds in the contents — this is what can be applied and put to use.

I typically try to capture ideas and develop usage notes right after finishing the book. I'll go back and review the pages I've flagged, the phrases I've highlighted, the notes in the margin — then I'll store a few notes on how I intend to apply the book's key ideas in my personal idea log, making it readily searchable.

Pull It Out

More sage advice from Dr. Maxwell — "My number one time waster? Looking for things I've lost! I will lose my glasses, or my pen — never my thoughts. There's nothing as important as a great thought — there's nothing as important as a sound idea — so I'll treat it like gold."

For me, this is fairly easy — I just go to the inside front cover, then either do or delegate the actions I've noted. One key action item — for certain key pages, I will have our office assistant scan and convert these page images to text, and then store it in the firm's document library. Getting this into electronic form makes it easily searchable by firm members, and shareable with them.

Pass It On

This step is the one I enjoy most — sharing what I've learned with others! Not everyone shares my love of reading — yet many people enjoy hearing ideas from me. As Mark Twain quipped, "A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read."

The most common way I pass ideas along? Through my monthly e-newsletter. My Clutter Coach will frequently chide me for spending eight hours on a newsletter. She'll ask, "Wouldn't it have been 'good enough' at, say, four hours?" My reply is typically the same — "Well, at four hours, I had not yet digested the ideas well enough to explain them to others. I wish I could have done it more quickly — it just took longer this month."

Here's a secret — while I want to always deliver a first-rate monthly e-newsletter to provide value to our readers, the REAL reason I write is to help me wrestle and tame new ideas. Oh, yes, there's another reason, too — to subtly remind folks of the creativity my firm brings to our client projects.

Remember — It's All About ROI, So Consider Obtaining and Using Multiple Formats

The purchase and reading of a book is all about ROI — Return on Investment. The book costs money. Your time is limited — and anything limited is inherently valuable. What's the value of your time? Have you considered ways to convert non-productive time to productive time? Do you have a daily commute? Do you mow your lawn, or work in the garden?

Given the many demands on my time, I am always looking for ways to get more done, without sacrificing sleep, personal time, or time with family and friends. Thus, I like to use drive time and mowing time to listen to books, monthly lessons, or periodic reports. I especially like the multiple ways Maximum Impact comes to us — a CD and printed booklet arrive in the mail each month. This arrival cues our office assistant to visit the web site to download and store the lesson in MP3 format, and the booklet in PDF form — and, yes, the electronic formats are stored in a searchable and shareable document library.

Let me share with you a practice some folks might consider wasteful. If a book is important enough that I need to have read it, yet is too long for me to actually read, I'll buy both the printed book, and the audio book in CD format.

  • CD versus MP3: Buying the CD version permits me to rip tracks, creating an MP3 file for each track. Buying the audio book in MP3 format typically provides just one large file for each audio CD — no tracks. Having individual tracks is essential to the next tip.
  • Print and Audio Formats:When I hear something of interest on the CD or the ripped tracks, I pause the audio and use my smartphone to send a brief e-mail to my personal idea log. I limit the e-mail to a subject line having four segments — so "TLC D1T04 0215 great section — find in book!" is my short-hand for:
    • Book/CD Title: I abbreviate, so The Leadership Challenge
    • Disc/Track Numbers: Disc 1, Track 4
    • Location Within the Track: 2:15
    • Key Point: A brief note of what's important ("If you can perform occasionally high, you can perform consistently high") or what I need to do ("Great section — find in book!")

I now have available all the information I need to cross-reference the CD track index to the appropriate chapter and section in the printed book. Now I can find — in print — exactly what caught my attention, and read about it in detail. What a time-saver!

Yes, buying two formats of the same content roughly doubles the cost, yet the benefits are enormous — especially when I can recommend an audio format to a staff member for use during a long drive.

The 2012 Book Reviews — Finally!

Thank you for reading this far! Because I wrote so much on How to "Read" a Book, let me just share my brief comments on four classic business books I bought in both CD and print formats, and initially "read" using the ripped tracks. I highly recommend all of these fine books!


Cover to the book "Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies"Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies

by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras

This phenomenal business bestseller had been recommended to me by many colleagues over the years, so I finally bought the paperback version. At 248 pages of relatively small print (342 pages, if you count the appendices and index), this was an intimidating read — and I let myself be intimidated.

One day, I noticed the CD audiobook at the local Barns & Noble, and I considered doing something I had never done before — listen to a business book on CD. So I bought the audiobook, ripped the CD tracks to MP3 format, and listened to the book while mowing and doing yard work.

This incredible book pairs two companies within the same industry, and then compares how the leaders of one company created a culture which was "built to last" — that is, would succeed them and set the direction for decades to come — while leaders of the paired company had good short-term success, yet failed to instill a long-term vision within the company. The company stories are informative and entertaining, and make the book an easy "listen."


Cover to the book "The Leadership Challenge" by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. PosnerThe Leadership Challenge

by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner

Leadership author and speaker John Maxwell calls this the best leadership book EVER written — and he should know! The authors ...

  • Set the stage for their five-step leadership model.
  • Develop the five steps Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart — in detail.
  • Conclude by sharing how everyone can be a leader.

People sometimes think "leadership" is reserved for the folks at the top of the organization chart — and the authors refute that notion. In fact, they deliberately chose stories of everyday managers, supervisors, and staff who successfully led change in their organizations.

The leadership model and qualities admired in a leader have been validated across the world — they are consistent across nation and culture. The audiobook of this nearly 400 page book has a nice bonus — a CD containing PDF's of exhibits in the book.


Cover to the book "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High"Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High

by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler

While the page count (235) and type size of this book are not particularly intimidating, I could not easily imagine how a book with this title would apply to my work life. Yet, this book had been recommended to me by several colleagues, and has sold over one million copies — so I figured I needed to become familiar with it. Once again, audiobook to the rescue!

The authors define a crucial conversation as "A discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong." (page 3). To me, that sounded nice, but meant ... what? The authors obviously anticipated my question because, on page 8, they give several examples of crucial conversations, including:

  • Giving the boss feedback about her behavior.
  • Critiquing a colleague's work.
  • Talking to a team member who isn't keeping commitments.

Okay, now I "got it" and was willing to invest the time to listen to the rest of the audio book — I am glad I did, because the authors illustrate their step-by-step process with numerous real-life examples.


Cover to the book "Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior"Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior

by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler

This audiobook was a little easier "sell" since I had already listened to the Crucial Conversations audiobook. In the preface, the authors note the differences between the two books — a crucial conversation deals with disagreement, while crucial confrontations are about disappointments. The introduction immediately dives into the true story that triggered the authors' research — the situation's drama and obvious bad behaviors immediately catch the reader's attention.

The rest of the book develops the authors' process, illustrated by referring back to the introductory story, and by describing other case studies. After the process is explained, the final chapters deal with steps to take following a crucial confrontation, to address the underlying disappointment. I found the final chapter particularly valuable as a reference — while situations such as confronting authority and addressing borderline behavior are not common, they are critically important and the book gives guidelines on how to do them well.


Cover to the book "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves"BONUS! Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves

by Sharon Begley

Sharon, a scientific writer and editor, reports on an annual conference called the "Mind and Life Dialogues," organized by the Dalai Lama to bring together scientists, philosophers, and Buddhist monks for a week-long series of presentations and discussions. She covers the 2004 conference on "Neuroplasticity" — the ability of the brain to change its functionality, based on various stimuli or events.

The author cites many examples of mental processing being rerouted to other parts of the brain because of a severe head injury. Yet the most fascinating finding, and the source of the title, was this — not only does the brain change where and how it processes inputs when it has been injured, it also undergoes these same changes in response to repeated mental practices, such as meditation. Some key points on meditation:

  • Meditation improves focused attention, allowing long periods of attention on a particular object.
  • Meditation can actually change the physical functioning of the brain, detectable by permanent changes in the nature of certain brain waves.
  • Meditation allows people to become more compassionate and helpful.

One note of caution — the audiobook is five CDs, and somewhere around the middle of CD 3 or CD 4, the research being cited become INCREDIBLY repetitious and boring. When this happens, don't give up! Just skip a few tracks to get past this section and continue onward — trust me, you'll be glad you did.


In Closing

This year's June book reviews departed from my usual practice — detailed reviews of several books. Nonetheless, I hope you find value in both:

  • My thoughts on how to "read" a book.
  • My thumbnail comments on several books I initially approached via audiobook, and subsequently referenced via the print version.

So, if you've ever wanted to read a lengthy business book, yet were put off by its size, you're now equipped with the tools to tackle it. Enjoy!

Todd L. Herman

Todd L. Herman

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