How To Get The Most Out of Audiobooks
People learn every day in a thousand different ways.
You don’t have to be a Ph.D., an astrophysicist, or a collector of obscure and random facts to be a learner. You just have to be passionate about something and willing to go a few steps beyond where the average person stops.
When I talk to people who tell me that they don’t think that they’re learners, I ask them to tell me something that makes them excited. Even if it takes some time, usually they can think of something and eventually start to light up as they share with me about their interest.
Maybe it’s cars. Maybe it’s baseball, bee-keeping, or beauty pageants.
The secret is that there is something for everyone; there are enough fascinating things in this world that everyone is a student of something.
Once you have something that you’re passionate about, you’ll want to set out to learn what you can. To do that well, you’ll need the right tools.
Listening to audiobooks is one of the great tools you can use to learn about your preferred topic.
My Audiobook Experience
I started an experiment at the beginning of this year where I wanted to listen to at least one book every week.
So far I've listened to 36 books in 2019.
Add that to the 12 audiobooks I listened to in the last quarter of 2018 and I’m almost to my 50th audiobook.
I’ve listened to fiction, autobiographies, leadership books, romantic comedies, philosophical books and more.
Here is my list of current 2019 listens:
The Bookshop on the Corner — Jenny Colgan
Team of Rivals — Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Tipping Point (Abridged Version) — Malcolm Gladwell
The Nightingale — Kristin Hannah
Manhattan Beach — Jennifer Egan
Originals — Adam Grant
Open — Andre Agassi
Career of Evil — Robert Galbraith
Educated — Tara Westover
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear — Liza Gilbert
When Life Gives You Lululemons — Lauren Weisberger
Red Queen — Victoria Aveyard
The Undoing Project — Michael Lewis
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck — Mark Manson
Game of Thrones — George R.R. Martin
Before We Were Yours. — Lisa Wingate
Lethal White — Robert Gailbraith
The Target — David Baldacci
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the start of the FBI — David Grann
The President is Missing — Bill Clinton and James Patterson
The Dry — Jane Harper
A Man Called Ove — Fredrick Backman
Them — Ben Sasse
Bad Blood — John Carreyrou
Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg — Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik
Circe — Madeline Miller
The Book Thief — Markus Zusak
The Single’s Game — Lauren Weisberger
Grit — Angela Duckworth
Target: Alex Cross — James Patterson
The Dichotomy of Leadership — Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
Endurance — Scott Kelly
King’s Cage — Victoria Aveyard
10% Happier — Dan Harris
Boundaries — Dr. Henry Cloud, John Townsend
Brave New World — Aldous Huxley
Over the last few years, within leadership culture, there has been much written about the power of reading. Reading is one of the best activities for leaders and is a consistent component of growth, development, and success. Consider this excerpt from an article published in the Harvard Business Review:
“The leadership benefits of reading are wide-ranging. Evidence suggests reading can improve intelligence and lead to innovation and insight… Many business people claim that reading across fields is good for creativity.”
We know that there are some serious benefits to reading.
There hasn’t, however, been the same push in research and writing about audiobooks. Although audiobooks have been around for a while, they were consistently more of a background option for learning. That is until more recently when audiobooks have seen a resurgence in large part to the podcast industry.
When Sarah Koenig and the Serial podcast came on the scene, almost singlehandedly re-launching the audio learning world, the flames of audiobooks got re-lit and is burning stronger than ever.
Based on my experience, there are four reasons why I think audiobooks will work for you to increase your learning on whatever subject you are passionate about.
Not only do I think they can work for you but I’ll also share the three practical steps I took to get started with audiobooks when I was new to my journey. These steps are short and simple and can be done in the span of 10 minutes.
Last but not least, we’ll talk about how to retain important information you listen to with 5 tips and tricks for audio retention.
Audiobooks are a world of possibilities at your fingertips. I’ve only just begun to unlock the fantastic adventure and here’s how you can too.
Why Audiobooks Can Work For You
Maybe you’ve tried audiobooks or other forms of auditory learning. Maybe you’ve gotten hooked on Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast or you like to listen to your favorite sports talk radio show in the mornings on the way to work.
Or, you might be in the high percentage of people who really haven’t explored the audiobook or auditory learning world. You might be on the fence about adding another form of learning to what I’m sure feels like an already way too full plate. I get it. I’ve been there.
When I started my audiobook adventure this January, I was in Grad School, working long hours at a non-profit company, trying to read physical books on my list and write articles as often as possible, all the while making sure to still invest in my marriage, my health, and my family. I looked at audiobooks and thought, “Seriously? You want to get into this?”
But the more I thought about it, the more I started to realize that there were some very real perks about audiobooks that I couldn’t get in other areas of my life. While I prefer a hardcover book with physical pages, I started to notice some of the reasons why audiobooks could potentially work well for me.
I think if you read over this list, you’ll start to see some of the reasons they might work for you as well.
1. Increased Flexibility
This was probably the biggest reason I started my audiobook adventure. I carry a physical book with me almost at all times, but towards the end of last year, I kept finding myself in situations where a physical book just wasn’t as conducive as an audiobook.
I have a longer commute to work, so that plays in my favor for audiobooks. But even if I didn’t have a long commute, there is still time in the mornings when I’m working on other household tasks where I could pop in some headphones and catch a chapter or two of my most recent audiobook.
Other areas I’ve found to be great spots for audiobooks: the gym, mowing the grass, cleaning the house, washing the dishes, going on walks.
There are moments in your day that are perfect for an audiobook to fill. Listening to books gives you an increased flexibility that really makes learning way more possible for you.
2. The Opportunity for Different Books
Not only did audiobooks open up the door for me to read more at random moments throughout the day, but it also allowed me to expand my horizons on what books I could actually get to.
At the start of 2019, I realized I needed to get out of the rut of reading and learning the same things. I was guilty of reading a lot of books and articles that were written by the same kinds of people about the same kinds of topics. I wanted some variety and I wanted to expand my circle of what I was learning into other areas that I hadn’t ventured before.
Being in Grad School, I have to read a lot anyway, so audiobooks became a haven of fun, mystery, and honestly random topics that I didn’t even know I wanted to learn about. I pick most of my audiobooks based on my interests, but I love to add in a book that I have heard good reviews about but know nothing about before reading.
Listening to audiobooks has re-invigorated my love for reading and learning new things. I think this can work for you as well.
Maybe the book that didn’t even know that you knew to read is just waiting for you to listen to. Your next favorite book is waiting!
As I mentioned above, with Libby, I’ve been able to listen to all 36 books this year for completely free. Let’s price the average book at $15 and that ends up being a cost-savings of $540 on books that I’ve been able to read and enjoy.
You can say the same thing about books from the library, but I’ve found that it’s been nice for me to not have to physically go to my library all the time. I love stopping in and picking out the occasional book, but audiobooks work for me because they are on the go and match the pace of my life.
I love when a new book comes out and I grab the audiobook version. It not only encourages my learning habit, but it pads my pockets as well.
For those with access to a library, the cost of audiobooks isn’t prohibitive so why not at least giving them a try!
4. Different Speeds
There are classes you can take that teach you how to speed-read. I actually think that would be pretty fun, although I have never taken one of those classes to be able to endorse the process.
When it comes to reading, in general, most people aren’t able to speed up or slow down their reading pace very easily. Sure, you can try to read slower on occasion, but if you’re anything like me, reading slower can be pretty boring so I typically just give up and go back to reading normally.
I’ve found that with audiobooks, the different speeds are actually incredibly helpful and useful in aiding my reading comprehension and allowing me to listen to more books on top of my busy schedule.
There are plenty of times where I am really loving a particular chapter and I’ll slow down the reading speed so I can better understand and grasp what is being said. Conversely, there are also times when I’ll be reading a fiction book that I’m hooked on the story and I’ll speed up the reading to as fast as I can continue to comprehend.
This ability to change the reading speeds has allowed me to squeeze more listening into a shorter timeframe, which in turn makes it more possible for me to meet my audiobook adventure goal.
With this feature, you can listen to your audiobooks at whatever pace or speed you want to as you look to set out on your own audiobook journey.
How I Got Into Audiobooks
As with all things related to books, sometimes there can feel like there is an overwhelming barrier to entry.
A lot of people want to read or listen to more books, but they either end up not having the time or not knowing what books to read.
I’ve found that trying to figure out what book to read or listen to next is like ordering something off a menu with a lot of options at a new restaurant. If you don’t like what you ordered, it’s easy to take that experience and think that you just won’t like the restaurant in general.
I have a lot of friends who tried reading at some point, only to get stuck in a book they didn’t love and then stop, saying that reading just wasn’t for them.
Like the menu, the issue isn’t with the restaurant in general, it’s with that particular dish.
Audiobooks are another dish on the menu just waiting to be tried.
Here are the three steps I took to get started with my audiobook goal in 2019.
1. Get Libby
This is hands down the best and most important discovery I made right before 2019 started.
Fun fact: it’s short for Librarian
This is an iPhone app I believe in correlation with OverDrive.
Basically, if you have a local library and can go to get a library card, you can link your card number with a Libby account and digitally “check out” most of the titles that are in your public library.
I have listened to all 48 of my audiobooks (and my current two that I’m listening to) for free.
Certain branches are different, but my branch works such that I can reserve or put on hold up to 10 audiobooks. Then when I download a book, I have up to 21 days to listen to the book. Sometimes I need more time, but almost 90% of the time, I can finish my audiobook before the 21-day window.
If you don’t have a public library near you, there are other paid audiobook subscriptions like Audible that hopefully aren’t too cost intrusive and actually offer a wider range of that you can purchase to listen to.
But so far, I’ve been more than happy with my local Library.
2. Consider making a GoodReads account and follow your favorite authors.
Goodreads is another one of those tools that you want to become more familiar with if you are looking to start out your audiobook journey.
Not only will Goodreads allow you to track the books you are reading or have read, but it will also give you a window into what other people are currently reading including some of the authors that you like to read and or follow.
When I was starting out listening to audiobooks, I remember listening to a book by Kristin Hannah called “the nightingale.” It was superb and I’d highly recommend it.
I went on Goodreads and was alerted that Kristin Hannah has just shared her top recommendations on books she was reading next.
Right there, I had my next book list.
For those who have trouble finding the next perfect book, Goodreads is a great platform.
3. Set a Listening Goal
The number one thing that helped me listen to 36 audiobooks this year was knowing that I had a goal to listen to a book a week.
We’re all different learners. So maybe you don’t want to do a book a week, but you’d be great with 1–2 books a month. That’s amazing. Maybe you want to listen to 10 audiobooks in 2020. That would be so, so great. Studies show that the average person reads 12 books a year. With an audiobook goal, it’s not unrealistic that you could realistically double your reading output overnight!
Once you find your platform of listening and you get your book list, then you can set a goal and work towards that over time.
All in all, downloading Libby, signing up for Goodreads, and setting a listening goal can all be done in 10 minutes or less.
If you’re timid about starting, maybe start slow and ease your way into it. You’ll be surprised what you can do if you’re only willing to start and give it a shot.
Tips for Retaining what you’ve Listened to
When it comes to audiobooks, retention is queen.
Enjoyment is king.
If you aren’t enjoying what you’re listening to, then maybe consider switching books. Remember, don’t just ditch the whole practice of audiobooks based on one bad menu item.
But right behind enjoyment is retention.
If you aren’t remembering or retaining what you are listening to, why are you listening? With reading and audiobooks becoming more and more popular in leadership circles these days, the temptation is there to jump on the bandwagon just because everyone is doing it and it sounds good to be able to say you’re a “reader.”
That’s called hollow reading. And it probably won’t help you in the long run.
You want to have your imagination sparked. You want to remember what it feels like to laugh out loud when great writing captures your heart and tickles your mind. You want to feel the deep emotions that comes with powerful storytelling and get to know the characters, places, and circumstances that are awaiting you on every page or every minute of audio storytelling.
Sink into the books and the audio and be someone who not only is touched by the content but someone who carries that content with them as you set off to touch the lives of others around you.
If you are on board for retaining what you listen to, here are some tips for how you can do that.
1. Pause Button
This is one of the most beautiful buttons on your audiobook screen. It is the equivalent of setting down your book on your kitchen table with the spine open as you take a short break before you come back to it again.
When I listen to audiobooks, one of the biggest temptations I face is to keep listening. Which ultimately you need to do to finish the book. But I’ve found that after a particularly impactful minute or chapter, I’ve really enjoyed hitting the pause button and creating space for my brain to catch up to what I just heard.
I like to roll the words over in my head and make sure that I am processing what the author is saying, not just allowing words to come in one ear and out the other.
So if you are new to audiobooks, don’t be afraid of the pause button. Pause as much as you like. It’s your book. It’s your adventure.
2. Three Sentence Summary
For every audiobook that I listen to, as soon as I’m done, I try to write out what I think would be a three-sentence summary of the book. I know what you’re thinking… only three sentences!! But here’s why this practice can be helpful to me and to you:
- short sentences require you to be precise and brief
- short sentences are easier to remember
- short sentences are easier to share with other people when they ask
- short sentences are less time for you in the long run
- short sentences are do-able by everyone.
That last point is important. Everyone can write down three sentences about something. This post is full of sentences. This tip isn’t asking you to write a 12 page single-spaced summary of the books you’re reading. That would be daunting.
Writing three sentences will help transform your understanding of the book and how you can keep that information close at hand for months and years to come.
3. Summary Sheets
This is the next step up from point number two. Once you get in the rhythm of writing out your three sentences for each audiobook, you can start to think about building out a short, one-page summary sheet for each book you listen to.
For me, my preferred tool to do this is Evernote. I have a folder titled “audiobooks” (creative, right?) where I make a new note for most books that I start. For fiction books, I don’t feel like I need a summary page since I’m not taking away a lot of practical and applicable contextual points. For most other categories, I try to make this summary sheet where I can write down some of the notes that stand out to me while I’m listening to that particular audiobook.
If this sounds daunting and you don’t know what notes you would put down on your summary sheet, a good place to start that I’ve found is with the chapter titles and any list headers that the author uses in his book. It can be as simple as a table of contents.
Basically, your summary sheet should be unique to you and should hopefully be a short cheat-sheet of shorts that allows you to remember and recall more of what you are listening to.
When I am listening to a book, I often keep a note on my phone open and pause the book to write down items I want on my summary sheet. Then I transfer over to Evernote. Eventually, when I finish my audiobook, I go back and clean up my summary sheet!
And viola! Building out a summary sheet is a massive help in your journey towards retaining what you listen to.
4. Bookmark your Reading
This is a tip that is dependent on what platform you are using to listen to your audiobooks. Maybe you don’t have the ability to jot down notes as you listen, especially if you are in the car or doing something like mowing the grass.
Most audiobook platforms will allow you to put in a bookmark if you are listening which serves as an indicator of a section that you liked and that you want to return back to.
If I have time, as I’m listening, I will drop occasional bookmarks and will then go back towards the end of the audiobook and re-listen to those sections that were particularly impactful.
5. Follow Along with a Physical Copy
I’ve only done this a handful of times, but it’s been helpful when I have had the space and time to employ this step.
Retention can be increased by associating what you are seeking to remember with multiple senses. If you can see and smell something, odds are that you have a better chance of remembering that item than if you could only see it. Same goes for reading and listening.
If you are still struggling to retain what you are reading, maybe consider taking an audiobook and getting the physical copy as well. That way, when you listen to your book, you can also read along and engage multiple senses in the process.
I’ve really had fun with my audiobook adventure in 2019. I have thoroughly enjoyed most of the books that I’ve listened to and I believe that I am a more cultured, wiser, and hopefully more understanding and empathetic person because of the content I’ve consumed over the last 9 months.
For me, audiobooks started with discovering tools like Libby and Goodreads and then making an audiobook goal that I wanted to accomplish.
I was motivated to look into this adventure because I wanted more flexibility in my learning, I wanted to read different books, save money, and go at different speeds than I was previously reading at.
And over time, I’ve learned how to retain what I listen to by hitting the pause button, writing out three-sentence recaps, one-page summaries, bookmarking my reading, and occasionally following along with a physical copy of the book I’m listening to.
Audiobooks have been a really fun adventure for me, and I’m hopeful that they can be something that you really begin to enjoy as well.