Reading for improvement is different than reading for information

Alaina Szlachta has made a living out of helping authors go beyond what they’ve written in their manuscripts so that their audiences can not just nod their head and think: that’s a good idea. Alaina helps authors create learning experiences that lead to behavior change when someone decides to pick up their book.

I recently had a chance to ask Alaina what the difference is between reading for improvement vs. reading for information/entertainment. In our conversation, Alaina shared five steps you can take if you want to truly improve while you read a book about something you’re interested in.

Transcript of the Conversation with Alaina Szlachta

Brian Washburn: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. 

I’m Brian Washburn from Endurance Learning, and we are brought to you by Soapbox, the world’s first and only rapid authoring tool for instructor-led training. You basically work it like an instant pot, where you throw in a few ingredients for your presentation and out it spits a lesson plan. So you throw in ingredients, like how long is your presentation going to be? How many people will be there? Is it going to be in- person? Is it going to be virtual? If it’s virtual, what platform are you using and what are your learning objectives? And then, boom, you get a whole sequence and flow of activities that will get you to your learning objectives. That is Soapbox If you’re interested, go to soapboxify.com

I am joined today by Alaina Szlachta, the Founder and Lead Learning Architect at By Design Development Solutions. And we’re going to be talking today about reading for improvement, not just for information. 

6-Word Biography

Brian Washburn: And so, as we think about this topic, Alaina, like we always like to do, we like to have our guests introduce themselves and sum up their careers, basically in exactly six words. So if I think about this topic today, about reading for improvement, I think my biography would be, “I would read TD magazine cover-to-cover”. And yes, that is hyphenated, so it is exactly six words. How about you? How would you introduce yourself in six words? 

Alaina Szlachta: My six word introduction for today’s topic would be “professional development and personal growth enthusiast”. 

Brian Washburn: I love that. And, let’s get right into this topic because as we were talking about this, I think that it’s really interesting to differentiate between reading for just entertainment or reading for information, and reading for improvement. So can you talk a little bit about what the difference is between reading for improvement and reading for information?

Reading for Information

Alaina Szlachta: Yeah, of course, and, you know, Brian, I think you actually answered the first part of this question, maybe even better than I could, because it was simple. The reading for information is really simply reading, whether it’s a book or some other piece of literature, simply for the fun, for inspiration maybe, or for the pure enjoyment of the reading. And that there’s really no accountability with doing anything with the information that you have acquired. You might do something with it. It could change your life, but there’s no real need or push or anything like that to do something with the information. 

So, some examples you mentioned in your six word introduction. I love reading, not Training Journal, but I love reading Training Industry Magazine. So I think when I read Training Industry Magazine, I read it every single month, I mostly read this journal because I want to feel informed. I just want to know what’s happening in the world of L&D outside of my bubble and the work that I’m doing. So, just being informed, that’s why I read that particular magazine. Another example, I read the Sunday New York Times and I don’t do anything with that information. I just, again, like to feel informed. And then another example I thought of was when I worked for Keller Williams Realty years ago, as a team we read the book Make Your Bed. And we simply read the book to kind of share a little bit about each other through the messages, the best practices, the stories of that book. And it was really reading for the sheer sake of sharing insights and nothing else.

Brian Washbun: Yeah so, I want to jump into this a little bit more and what you just mentioned in terms of you got together with your team and you read a book to share insights, to be informed. Now there’s also this feeling, sometimes, that we’ve read a book, so we feel better. 

And I think a specific example would be last June. At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests there was an op-ed in the Washington post that was titled When Black People are in Pain, White People Just Join Book Clubs. And that was a very blunt reminder that reading doesn’t necessarily translate into action or into behavior change. And so, for organizations that use things like book clubs to develop their staff, what do you think are some of the dangers or the shortcomings of a book club? 

Reading Doesn’t Necessarily Translate Into Action

Alaina Szlachta: So, I think this is a great example. And the dangers of book clubs, or really trainings for that matter, especially around topics like racism or discrimination, is that they lack a follow-up, a follow-through or any real change at the organizational level or even at the community level. And so, for example as a white woman, I read the book in the face of all the things that happened last year and continue to happen this year. I read the book, So You Want To Talk About Race? and I felt significantly more informed. However, am I more likely to speak up when my white friends make microaggressions? Maybe. Am I going to correct someone who is incorrectly discussing affirmative action? Maybe.

So, the difference is that it’s not just about reading or doing a training to feel better, like you said, or to feel informed. It’s, well, what are you doing with that information? And so this topic is so important for us because I don’t think anybody is going to say that they want to live in a world where racism exists. But yet, what are we doing about it? What are– how are we using the resources? And there’s many wonderful resources out there for all people to improve their actions, their behaviors, especially around microaggressions and understanding what to say, when to say – to not just be silent. 

When Practice and Application Are Missing 

Alaina Szlachta: And so, actually, I wanted to give an example, I read a book recently that was called The Power of Moments and in chapter nine, the authors talk about practicing courage. And in that book, they talk about the civil rights leader, James Lawson, and how he held workshops for black residents of Nashville during the protests, the sit-ins at local restaurants. And what he was doing was getting those folks to practice courage, to actually practice resistance, to ultimately be prepared for the resistance that they would face live, in person. And that’s what we need to do, similarly. 

I’m sure all of us can think of examples where we heard microaggressions spoken in our working spaces, and our friend circles, in our family groups. And we felt like, “wow, I really wished I would have said something” and we don’t. Because maybe we don’t have the courage to say something, we don’t know what to say. And so, ultimately, you know what I think about is practice. 

When I was on live television for the very first time I spent hours in the mirror, in my living room, practicing how to introduce my own name. Well, why don’t we do the same when a microaggression happens in our lives and we want next time, if we didn’t do it right the first time, if we want next time to do it better, to practice in the mirror in the comfort of our own homes what we would say should something like that happen again? So that we don’t even have to think about the words that the emotions don’t hold us back, that we have the courage because of the practice to do something in the face of microaggressions of racism. 

And so, the point in all of this is simply the practice, the application piece is really what’s missing. And if we don’t have a lot of thought and intention around how we incorporate that practical component, especially inside of an organization. Then reading a book and doing a book club is only going to make us feel better – hopefully – but not necessarily make any meaningful change. 

Brian Washburn: Do you have some suggestions in terms of how to go about reading for improvement? Like, is it, “okay this book or this article – I want before I even open the cover, these are some things that I want to get out of it. These are the things that I want to do or change”.

Alaina Szlachta: Yeah. 

Brian Washburn: What can people do going into reading something to make sure that they’re reading for improvement, not just information or entertainment?

Five Steps for How To Read for Improvement

Alaina Szlachta: Yes, so, I have five steps. So, I was planning on talking about this earlier, but I love that we actually reversed the order of this conversation because now it brings it to life in a more meaningful way.

Step One: Have a Goal

Really the whole idea of reading for improvement, is that we want to first and foremost, we want to have our reading be associated with a specific goal. And so, I love why you introduced “well, when racism and microaggressions are happening in our local communities or inside of our organizations we obviously want to combat that”. So that’s the goal, right? When it comes to incorporating book clubs or things like that. 

But yeah, making sure that before you even open the cover of a book, that you have a really clear reason for why you’re reading that book in the first place. And there’s a lot of intentionality, there’s a lot of purposefulness that’s actually inserted into how you read and why you’re reading. And a lot of this is actually thoughtfully planned out, like I said, before you even open the cover of the book. You’re probably wondering, “well, give me an example, Alaina, what do you mean by that?” So, I have one prepared for you. So I just read the book E-Learning and the Science of Instruction. And just like many of you listening to this podcast, you’re learning designers, or you’re facilitators, or both, and we’ve all been charged with doing a million percent more digital learning than we’ve ever had to before. And so, a friend of mine recommended I read this book. And so this book is ominous. It’s like, I don’t know, 300 pages and there’s just a lot of really good information. So it’s like, “Ooh, how do I take this incredible resource and how do I actually apply some of the really wonderful insights to the work that I’m doing?” 

And so what I started with, is I had a clear intention. And that is I’m reading this book because I want to apply the best practices to two specific projects that I’m working on that I have some clear challenges with.

So step one, before you read a book, or even before you choose a book to read make sure you understand the intention behind reading it. And even more, pick a project or pick a really specific application, something so narrow that it makes it easier for you to be paying attention to: how do I apply what’s in this book to this project or to this goal? 

It’s kind of like when you want to buy a new pair of running shoes or you want to buy a new house or a new car, you have this weird antenna that never existed before. Now, all you do is you see running shoes, you see houses, you see cars and you’re like, “do I like those? Do I not like those? What do I want to learn more about those things?” It’s like you have this very intentional antenna and that’s what this does. It sets up the antenna for you to start applying things even subconsciously toward your end goal. So, that’s step number one. 

Step Two: Have a Plan

Step number two: make a plan for how you’re going to read the book. So this could be something that a manager organizes for a team, or it could be something that you do for yourself. But your plan should have a couple of things. One, it should include insights around the greatest challenges that you’re experiencing, so like: what’s getting in the way of me achieving my goal? and how is this book going to help me? And so, then you would look at the index. And the truth of matter is, when I read the book E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, did I read the whole thing? No, I just didn’t have the time nor was it necessary, but what did I do? I knew my challenges, I knew my goal and I scanned the index of the book and I think I read four chapters. I always read the beginning chapter because I like the way that authors take the time to set the stage. You get the tone. Maybe you liked the way that the author’s writing style. You might read more of the book, but that first chapter is great. Also, authors oftentimes will tell you how to read the book, so you can actually hear from the author themselves, what are some of the ways that they recommend that you have that antenna. If anyone could see me right now, I’m making the antenna sign by my head. But yeah, you want to get that antenna tuned to how to apply the information. So, yeah, we scan the index, we highlight, we star, we check-box, whatever to pick those chapters first and foremost that we want to prioritize. 

And then I think within this step two, this is the most important part, is: set up an accountability partner. Because if you can read a book with your colleague, with your partner, with your best friend, somebody in your life who is reading right along there with you, if you can tell them, like, “hey, I have this goal, this challenge. I’m reading this book for this reason, you want to read it with me?” Then you guys have naturally discussion partners, you can learn from each other, you can bounce ideas off each other. But more importantly, you help one another to actually read the book, which is a really important part of this, being, you know, seeking the goal.

Steps one and two are like the pre-work, it’s like before you open the cover, before you dive in.

Step Three: Physically Engage With the Book

Now step number three is: what do you do while you’re reading the book? This is really important. and I was a doctorate student, I had five years of reading, more things than I care to admit. And I tell you what I marked up all of my textbooks, all of my books that I read. I would highlight passages. I would make notes in the margins. And more importantly, I would use these little sticky notes where you can stick it on the page and you can write on the tab something. Because I would want to refer to that again in the future. So a lot of times, I read books multiple times. So if I don’t mark up the book, if I don’t have an easy way to reference my key insights, then I’ve kind of wasted my time in the first place. So you actually want to engage physically with the book, which is, you’re not surprisingly going to hear me say I am a really big fan of physical books, especially for reading for improvement. 

Step Four: Do the Exercises and Activities in the Book

And then step number four is the simplest of them all. And that is: you know, most authors when they write books, especially for improvement, they give us exercises, they give us questions, they give us things to do after we’ve read the chapter. Do the things. Don’t skip over that part. If you really truly are reading for improvement, follow the guidance that the author gives to you and if you’re not reading for improvement well feel free to take that in stride. But if you truly want to make a difference in your life because of the insights of the book, do the exercises.

Step Five: Discuss and Debrief

And then the last step of them all is: with your accountability partner, with people in your life, whomever it is, talk about the insights. You’re doing the exercises, you’re applying the information. Talk about that with people, with your accountability partner in particular. But discussion really deepens our understanding of concepts.

It truly enhances the depth of the meaning of the message and how we can use it and because it helps us to remember the concepts, we can recall those ideas again and again in future projects. 

Brian Washburn: I love this. So step one, just to recap, is to have a goal, right? So step two is to have a plan, especially for accountability. Step three is to physically engage with the book, know where you want to revisit. Step four is to actually do the things that the author recommends that you do. And step five is to discuss and debrief. 

And then my guess is at that point, you’ve gone from being informed and inspired to perhaps even, whether it’s competent or not, able to give it a try. Which I think is really great. I love those steps, Alaina. Thank you so much for kind of walking us through this because I think that’s a really important distinction between why we would want to read for information and why, how we can read for improvement.

Before we leave. I have several speed round questions for you? Are you ready for these questions? 

Alaina Szlachta: Absolutely. 

Get to Know Alaina Szlachta

Brian Washburn: Okay. So my first question is right before you give a presentation, what is your go-to food or snack? 

Alaina Szlachta: I try not to eat. I make sure I have water because I don’t want to have dry mouth.

Brian Washburn: I’m with you. I get the butterflies and the butterflies don’t want to be fed a lot of times. What’s a piece of training tech that you can’t live without?

Alaina Szlachta: Hmm, this is going to be, like, an incredibly old school, but I have to have a really great way to keep myself organized because I’m often working on multiple projects. Whether as a business owner, or as a corporate training leader, I often had multiple things that were running through my head at all times. And so, I have virtual sticky notes, physical sticky notes, and a notebook. And I know that that’s not sexy. I could talk about all kinds of other things. But at the end of the day, how we keep ourselves organized, just our own self, not teams. Like if we are not organized, we are not being of service to others, and so, that’s really important to me. 

Brian Washburn: I love that. Is there a special app or do you just use sticky notes that come embedded in your computer? 

Alaina Szlachta: So I do. I’m a Mac user, so I use the sticky notes on the Mac computer, and all my sticky notes are color coded. I used to have a notebook I would carry around with me. I love those tabs that I told you about, when you physically engage with your book. I use lots of those tabs. I used to color code them for my different project, then any time I would talk to someone or I’d be out in the world listening to a podcast or whatever, I could write it down into that color coded thing, so I could visually pick the place to keep my notes. 

Brian Washburn: So we’ve just spent the past 15 minutes or so talking about reading for improvement, I’m kind of curious, in terms of your thoughts, what should people be reading these days, or maybe even listening to?

Alaina Szlachta: Well, you know, Brian, I want to circle back to a question, maybe you’ll bring it up. But the books I want to recommend are actually great examples of books where people have done a really great job helping readers to read for improvement. And so, they’re all very different. 

So I am someone who has this desire to have the most wildly fulfilling intimate partnership in my life. That’s really important to me, and so I do spend time reading, listening to podcasts, talking to people in my life about how do you be a good partner and how do you, like, how do you sustain a partnership for years to come, right? So there’s a book, it’s called Getting the Love You Want, and it was recommended to me by a woman. The author, Dr. Harville Hendrix; he is incredible. 

He does a wonderful job of writing and using things like guided imagery and self-reflection exercises throughout the book that helped people to ultimately take the exercises and apply them to your life. But what he’s doing is he’s actually building trust between the reader and the author, which for a topic like intimate partnerships, healthy relationships, things like that, you have to have trust. And oftentimes trust is broken within your partnership and maybe that’s why you’re reading the book in the first place. So he does a great job building trust, doing exercises, things like that. So, love that particular resource. It was something I actually listened to as an audio book and I had a journal, and so as things would come up, I would pause the book and I would reflect. I actually found that to be really useful. I was on the beach or on the airplane or going for a run– well, not going for a run, but like sitting on my porch, drinking coffee, listening and journaling. 

Brian Washburn: A lot of times when we get to this point in the podcast, people are like: “Oh, you know, people should be reading outside of the field of learning and development” because there’s a lot of things that we can learn and even this, which has nothing really to do with the field of instructional design or learning and development, has good design, right? I think there’s a lesson here in terms of whether it’s something that you’re reading or something you’re designing, make sure there are pause points, make sure there are reflection points to help guide the learner in terms of what they should be getting out of this.

Alaina Szlachta: Yeah, no, and I just think make sure there’s trust. I think that sometimes we underestimate how much it takes for our learners to trust us as facilitators or to trust the design of the learning. And so to be really thoughtful about how you’re demonstrating credibility and building trust. I love that this book provides –  because it does exercises within the book, which are important to follow along if you want to see the improvement. But following that lead is really important. 

I would say two other books that are just great. David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. It’s been around a long, long time. But I like this example because he’s been around for so long from the learning and development perspective, he’s done a really great job of taking a book and building a learning empire around it, where he has workbooks associated with it. I think he even has a certification program. He does coaching, he trains coaches to be coaches. So, I think it’s a really great example of what becomes possible when you take a concept, it sticks, it works, and then what we can do with learning to just build that brand and to continue the learning and the impact of that one concept – getting things done. 

Brian Washburn: Absolutely. And then before we leave here, do you have any shameless plugs for us? 

Alaina Szlachta: Well, of course I have to plug myself. But, you know, the business that I do I think is something we can all learn around. That if you’re someone like me who loves professional development, make sure that you’re investing in the right learning products. So I am a learning product designer. I design products for consumers, but I’m also a consumer of learning products. And so if you’re going to invest money in a masterclass or some online course for something, just make sure that you’ve vetted that process, you’ve vetted that program. Because we can spend money and time on something, and then feel like it’s a waste at the end. And a lot of it has to do with really great consumer research on our part. So that’s the plug. If you’re going to invest money in some professional development, make sure that it’s designed well and then you’re guaranteed to have a good experience. And of course, that’s what we do when we design our experiences, make sure that they’re built well from the foundational elements.

Brian Washburn: This has been fantastic and I think it’s a really valuable conversation and especially those five steps: 

  • Have a goal. 
  • Make a plan for accountability. 
  • Engage physically with the book. 
  • Do the things that the author wants you to do. 
  • Discuss and debrief. 

Because there’s a lot of us that read books. And a lot of us want to change, a lot of us want to improve. And I think that there are some very specific steps to go ahead and do that. And if you’re missing any of these five steps, you might be missing that opportunity for improvement.

Alaina Szlachta, thank you so much for joining us here today and thank you everyone else for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen, which can be found on Spotify, on iHeartRadio, on Apple, wherever you get your podcasts from. And if you happen to like what you hear, go ahead and give us a rating. Don’t forget to subscribe; that’s how people find us. And until next time, happy training everyone!

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