Why you should try a live reading session

by Nihal M6 min read26th Jun 20212 comments

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For the last 8 months, I've been running live reading sessions with some of my friends, co-workers, and members of the local SSC/LW group. In this post I wish to share some of my findings on it's effectiveness, advantages and potential failure points

What is a live reading session

I was inspired by this tweet to try out the deep reading sessions mentioned. The basic format is as follows:

  • Pick something to read
  • People show up for the session with no homework
  • People take turns reading out live and highlighting/annotating
  • Discuss what was read at regular break points and at the end of the session.

I'm calling them "live reading" sessions instead of "deep reading" sessions as I believe the killer feature is the process of "reading live" with others. 

How I run them

I took the basic idea from the tweet, and have run three independent groups doing reading sessions on a regular basis. All the groups are still active, and my week is filled with 4-6 hours of these sessions. 

  • Group A - (9 months old)  with two friends reading full length books and occasionally essays
  • Group B - (6 months old)with co-workers and some friends reading essays and articles only
  • Group C - (1 month old) with the local SSC/LW group reading essays and articles only

I have modified the original formula for all these groups based on the group dynamics and with the goal of having continuously active sessions. The main difference is not having live annotations/highlighting.

What makes it work

Active discussions

  1. I've run SSC/LW meetups which discuss some of Scott's essays and not everyone in the group was able to participate at the same level. Among other reasons, this was also due to different people not recalling parts of the essay or major points of the essay. Partial recall deters conversations, and having the essay read moments earlier makes it very easy for people to chime in.
  2. Some discussion points that you think of while reading while reading are not necessarily present or remembered after the whole essay is read. Having the discussion much earlier in the pipeline from reading--->recall--->discussion  is much more unfiltered.

Lower Barrier of Entry

In a typical reading club, people are expected to do homework of reading a specified section beforehand (Which is perfectly reasonable), so that all the time is devoted to discussion. From my experience in trying and failing to sustain such reading clubs, I've noticed that not everyone reads beforehand and tends to skip the session not having done their homework. i believe this shouldn't deter them from having discussions on it, and live reading is a more welcoming format. Lowering barrier of entry is a nice thing to do when people don't have to do any homework.

If all you have to do is show up, more people participate.

Lessons I've picked up

  • Essays for larger group sizes and full books for smaller ones. Point in context - Group A was reading books and we've averaged a book in two months. Inspired by Group A, I started Group B with co-workers, and attendance was dwindling with subsequent sessions. I changed the format to essays only, and we have steady attendance and interest. My guess is that attendance was reduced due to people thinking they have to catch-up on what they missed, and thus had homework to do.
  • For sessions where you read essays/articles, let the group decide on the article to be read by voting. I let the group nominate the essay. This increased involvement by members with better engagement and attendance.
  • Small groups are ultra-flexible. Group A with just 3 members has the most regular meetings, and a clear understanding if someone's not available for a session, that session is cancelled and we move on to the next one. Also, rescheduling is super easy.
  • Fixed schedule beats being flexible for large groups. With Group A being flexible, Group B also started with a flexible scheduling, but it was difficult to schedule and coordinate, and now I run them on a fixed schedule. This also makes it easier for participants to confirm their attendance or absence.
  • I initially started being the only one to read out loud in Group B, and asked for volunteers to join. No-one volunteered. Later I changed the format such that everyone takes turns, and people liked that format.
  • Not everyone is expected to read out loud, and is freely allowed to pass when it's their turn
  • My current beliefs are that annotations are not essential, and can seem like extra work to some people in the group. I am however currently experimenting with writing notes on every session and that's shared with everyone. Tools like around that have integrated notes which are automatically emailed to all participants are great in reducing friction.
  • Anyone can raise a question or a discussion point at any time during the live reading. This is encouraged, and are not treated as interruptions.

Caveats and Considerations

  • For groups with people who find it easy to stick to the traditional book club format with homework (highly active participants), this kind of session might seem very redundant. Please note that this might not be the most effective format for such people. It is however, a more accessible format for others.
  • Moderation is required. In group B and C, I moderate the discussion to nudge the reading process if a discussion proceeds for too long. This is an active process, and I still need to get better at this.
  • An article that has an estimated reading time of 20 mins takes 1.5hrs(on average) to complete in this format. The extra time is filled with discussions, helping others understand the subject or concepts. This might deter some people.
  • Since a significant portion of the session is spent reading out loud, in those sections participants are listening, and not actively participating. This is not altogether a bad thing, as active listening is a good skill to have. But some people might find it tiring. 
  • The conversation is not free-flowing to any topic as higher order tangents are avoided. This might deter some people. Case in point - The local SSC/LW group has always had free-flowing discussions. Some of the members in group C missed the free-form nature. 
  • Picking the right essay/article to read is strongly correlated with the quality of the session. There were some sessions where the article we voted on was not conducive for discussion or had highly abstract concepts resulting in a majority of the participants finding it difficult. Group B has a preference for learning new concepts and mental models. Group C is still in the process of figuring out what fits them best.

Conclusion

Live reading sessions are a tweaked format of traditional book clubs which can work effectively for clubs which might have previously failed, and have a high attrition rate. If you're planning to start one, I highly recommend it. It has worked well for multiple settings, and has increased my general intake of literary content while also increasing my engagement with said content. 

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Am I alone in being irritated by having someone read something to me?

I'm not sure what it is exactly but I think a lot of it is out-loud reading is just so much slower than my own reading-to-myself speed.  The feeling is similar to, but not exactly the same as, when watching a not-computer-literate person using a computer or watching other people play a video game.

You're not alone. I know people who've tried this technique, and preferred to read things by themselves instead. 

For those who don't mind, and want to have a social reading habit, this can be a potentially useful format.