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Information Overload - An Interview with Dr Bruce Stewart September 11, 2013

Dr Bruce Stewart was recently interviewed by eReflect on the subject of Information Overload for the 7speedreading.com blog.

INTRODUCTION TO INTERVIEW: "Information overload" is something that keeps even the most qualified professionals from reaching their peak performance at work. Everyone from a small start-up owner to the head of a multinational corporation needs to be able to read, process, comprehend, remember, and use all of the critical facts, essential budget figures, and all of the other details that go into an efficiently functioning business. And because the road to professional success often starts in school, it's also important for university students, and teenagers working to qualify for admission in top-ranked universities to have the skills they need to succeed. Speed reading is perhaps one of the most effective skills to have in order to stay ahead of the game something that Dr. Bruce Stewart has known and taught for over 30 years.
1.) You were working with the Evelyn Wood speed reading school at the same time that you began your professional life as a lawyer. When did you first start getting interested in, and using, speed reading techniques?
Dr Stewart : As an assistant district attorney in South Africa I was overwhelmed with the reading requirements inherent in a really mountainous case-load with minimal time for trial-preparation.  There was also the need to remain up to date on new legislation, legal journals, current case-law and the changing mores of a society experiencing the traumatic changes of social unrest in apartheid South Africa. Being able to read faster with better comprehension and retention sounded like a good idea so I enrolled in the 8-week Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics course. It changed my life. My conviction rate soared, I continued my legal studies and got my life back under control. A number of other ADA's asked me to help them with their reading skills, as did a number of judges, so I approached the Evelyn Wood Institute about becoming an instructor and started teaching these skills in late 1975 / early 1976. I left the Justice Department in 1978 and joined the Coca-Cola Company where I found that corporate executives and managers were experiencing the same reading burden that I had experienced. I adapted and honed my teaching skills for corporates and soon had Microsoft, IBM, Lotus as clients as well as accounting firms, financial analysts and the Reserve Bank. The demand was so great for this training and I had some strong ideas about how to enhance my teaching with my own experiential knowledge, so in 1979 I bought the Evelyn Wood operation in South Africa, re-designed the courses to yield bigger results in less time, added to my own knowledge with a Master's degree and then a Doctorate, and finally expanded my ExecuRead range of courses, from South Africa, into the UK in 1998, the USA in 2001, and then into Canada, the UAE and into Vietnam.
2.) Your ExecuRead clients include multinational banks, city councils, school districts, and even people in the U.S. Armed Forces. What makes people in such widely differing fields want to learn speed reading?
Dr Stewart : Over 90 percent of new information is acquired through reading. And while total information doubles every 9 to 18 months, reading speeds are on the decline. The skill of reading is archaic we teach our kids to read the same way we were taught to read and we terminate the reading skill learning process in the 2nd grade. The result we are trying to survive in an information age with the reading skill of a 2nd grader. The math is simple if the volume of information doubles every year or so and our rate of absorption remains constant, we end up knowing less and less about more and more every year. And ignorance will ultimately reveal itself in unwise decision-making, financial collapse, failing school grades and death on the battle-field.  I think the reason behind the wide diversity of my clients lies in my ability to integrate my teaching into a client's requirements. For example, military intelligence analysts already use the OODA model for processing intelligence data. I showed them how to integrate speed reading, information filtering and information triage into OODA to make the whole process substantially faster, more efficient and more accurate. So without having to totally reinvent the wheel, we're saving lives on the battlefield.
3.) Speed reading isn't something that most people can learn overnight, but you offer weekend speed reading courses at your offices in North Carolina. What do you teach the participants in those classes that allows them to put speed reading principles into practice so quickly?
Dr Stewart : Invariably, when folks decide they need to read faster, their need is already pretty urgent. They don't want long training sessions over numerous weeks that require a huge time-commitment. They want a quick solution with huge results. This was my biggest challenge to design a training format that would increase reading speed 5 times with equal or better comprehension and with better concentration, retention and recall all within a single weekend or a couple of days at a client's location. I think that the secret lies in the face-to-face environment of a classroom where I am able to probe my students to find out what they are capable of achieving (even if they don't know it!!) and then to push them into performance levels that often stun them. I recently enjoyed working with a US Marine intelligence analyst who, in two days grew from a 417 words per minute reading rate at 56 percent comprehension to a 7000 words per minute reading rate with 75 percent comprehension! The poor fellow is still in shock but has a smile a mile wide.
4.) As we mentioned in the introduction to this interview with you, "information overload" is something that more and more people are having to cope with, and you offer advice on information management as well as speed reading classes. Do you find that one helps with the other?
Dr Stewart : Information overload is something that is impacting everyone. Speed reading is only part of the solution. There are other tools we can use. Information management involves filtering information to extract mission-relevant knowledge from information "fluff" and information triage prioritizes the processing of mission-relevant knowledge that is extracted in the information filtering process. Part of the strategy is to define reading purpose, trigger existing subject knowledge and to stimulate subject curiosity. My ExecuRead courses are thus somewhat more than mere speed reading classes.
5.) You emphasize the need for the personalized approach to instruction in speed reading, and lead classes on site rather than using a web-based or self-study program. Why did you decide to use this teaching model?
Dr Stewart : Firstly, because I'm probably a bit of dinosaur. Remember, I started teaching these skills before the internet. In the days of the audio-cassette where you were dependent on the mobility-restrictions of a cassette-player and the ever-present risk of the tape being "eaten". TV was in its infancy, radio not much better and computers virtually unknown. Hard-copy books were pretty much your only source of information and the personal touch was expected. The classroom-course was a natural and obvious extension of the school classroom where I could get to know my students, understand their needs, sympathize with their frustrations and guide them to success. Speed reading is not a product you cannot buy it with a check or credit card. It's a skill that has to be learned and developed and working with a tutor makes the process easier and achieves results faster.
Secondly, because I am not convinced that a physical skill can be totally acquired from a book. Physical skills like golf, surgery and typing require both the knowledge of what to do and the practice of doing so. And with a qualified, competent instructor, practice makes perfect and permanent.
I am not averse to web-based or self-study programs. They are more affordable and more accessible than classroom-courses and they are certainly a good step up from doing nothing at all. Sure, there's no instructor to guide you, show you what to do, answer your questions, motivate you to keep going, but then you didn't pay for that. Your relationship with the company ended when your payment cleared and the course material was delivered. But if you want to understand why you read so slowly, why you fall asleep while reading, why you cannot concentrate or remember what you've just read, and you want to learn some basic techniques to double your reading speed, then there's absolutely nothing wrong with a web-based or self-study program if you have the self-discipline and self-motivation to do the work required by the course.