Be a Great Reader

When an organization has a culture where the written word is valued, being a great reader is just as important as being a great writer. In my time at Amazon, I’ve learned (more like it was beaten into me) to have a very high-bar for my own writing. I wrote a little about this in my post Details Matter. I’ve also learned the importance of being a great reader, and that’s the topic of this post.

In the latest Amazon Shareholder letter Jeff Bezos wrote more about Amazon’s famous ‘six-page narratives’. He used the process of writing a great narrative as an example of what it means to have relentlessly high-standards.

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.”

– Jeff Bezos, Amazon 2017 Annual Letter

The “narratively structured six-page” mechanism at Amazon is not about the document itself. Instead the ‘six-page memo’ mechanism creates a virtuous cycle that results in ever-increasing clarity of thought. The major components of that cycle are great writing, great meetings (“study hall”), and great reading.

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It turns out that not everyone is a great reader (including those like me who have always read a lot)! Great reading is a skill that requires focus and training.

Understanding is key

I am not a speed reader. I am a speed understander.

– Isaac Asimov

I finish novels in a fraction of the time it takes most people because I learned as a kid how to skim and cluster (two of the primary techniques used in speed reading). For novels this is fine. But for Amazon-style narratives and technical papers speed reading is bad. Understanding is key. I had to train myself to slow down and focus on understanding to be a valuable participant in document reviews at Amazon. I am still working on it.

Learn how to understand first, then apply skills for efficiency. I see two modes to reading: Novel mode and study mode. These modes are related only because they both involve eyes seeing words on a page; otherwise they are diametrically different. In reading a novel, efficiency is key so skimming the boring bits is fine. Inventing character or plot details that were glossed over will not ruin the story.

But for narratives every word, every element of grammar, every punctuation mark, and every number were carefully chosen by the writer. Thus understanding is key. Skimming and clustering are anti-patterns to reading narratives well because if any detail is missed, the entire point of the memo may be missed.

I’ve become a better reader by training myself to be an active reader. Active reading means being 100% focused on the document at hand and scrutinizing every word, every punctuation mark, and every bit of formatting. It means checking the math. It means reading slowly and pausing regularly (like every time there’s a period indicating the end of a sentence or whitespace indicating a paragraph break!) to think critically about what the writer wrote. Great active readers can identify omitted “obvious” details the writer left out, but others miss.

Contrast this to passive reading, which is when the point is just to be entertained.

Tips for Being a Great Reader

  • Be an active reader.
  • Have a pen in hand. Use it. I find having a pen in hand when I start reading helps put me in Active Reader Mode.
  • Pause on numbers and do the math yourself. Don’t trust any number. If a number seems hyperbolic, find the place in the doc where it was justified.
  • Pause after each sentence or paragraph and restate it in your head. Pausing between paragraphs allows the brain to digest details and make connections.
  • Stop if you find yourself reverting to speed reading. Go back and read what you skimmed again.
  • Don’t let document author cajole you into hurrying up. If they made the doc too long, or so confusing that you’ve had to re-read parts of it, that’s not your problem. Insist they give you more time.
  • Hold the writer to a high standard. If the doc is confusing, say so. If, after reading, you are hungry for more details on something, insist on more details. Writing, reading, and the review meetings are part of a complete mechanism that is intended to give everyone involved clarity of thought on a topic. There is nothing wrong with going through a loop multiple times, and until the topic is presented as simply and clearly as possible, your job as a reader is to help the writer come back next time with an even better version.

What tips and techniques have you learned for being a better reader?

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

3 comments


  1. Cecilia Z

    Amazon of course does this, but printed paper makes a big difference versus reading on a screen. It’s a writing tip but even in reading if you can’t understand what the writer is saying, trying to rephrase by removing passive voice helps. It also helps suss out vague word-wasting statements like, “There will be features” or “the customer will be presented with options.”

  2. Nice job Charlie! The paragraph that called out skimming and clustering was really well done. One other tip for consideration – write your questions in the margins as you go. Don’t get hung up on them or over think them, let them flow. When done, revisit all your questions and strike through those that were answered later in the doc. Helps the writer identify gaps, and keeps the reader focused once in question/ discussion mode.

  3. Terry Guzman

    Great job Charlie. Thanks for helping your followers grow.
    Another important tip, remember that feedback is a gift. Leadership through feedback is more effective with empathy, but remember that a readers feedback is valuable. If time is a constraint, then give the writer feedback post the meeting or give the writer your hand written notes.

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