How to take in more information from an audiobook

The more I listen to audiobooks, the more I find them an excellent way of accessing new learning in an easy way. When I am driving, even for 5 minutes, or walking around a shop, or taking a stroll by the river, or on a plane or train, or even sitting at home, it’s easy to press play and listen to the next nugget of wisdom.

However, I did start to find I was struggling with taking in the information. I did some research and I found that avid listeners digested a greater amount of knowledge by increasing the playback speed within the Audible app. Audible has this built-in and you can set the playback speed to any of the following:

0.5x • 0.75x • 1x • 1.25x • 1.5x • 1.75x • 2x • 2.5x • 3x • 3.5x

For non-fiction, I have slowly increased from 1x to 1.75x. I struggle with 2x, and some books I will drop back to 1.25x or 1.5x. It depends on the pace of the narrator and their accent. For fiction, I tend to hover around 1.5x.

The clever thing with Audible is that the narration isn’t compressed when you speed it up; it doesn’t sound high-pitched or squeaky. The waveform of the sound is chopped so it sounds just like the narrator, but faster – as if they were just talking more quickly.

We all take in information at different speeds, and we all speak at different speeds, and I find that by modulating the narration to match my own speed of thought and speech that I can more easily absorb the contents. I can also listen to more books in a shorter timeframe.


Here are the key benefits for me:

  • Acquire more knowledge in a shorter time
  • More quickly determine if the content of the book is right for me
  • Learn at my pace, not the pace of the narrator
  • Narrated books make the topic come alive
  • I like to know how long a book will take
  • I can listen anywhere and at anytime
  • I can multitask (as in drive and listen, or go to the gym and listen)


However, audiobooks are not always the best form of learning – some of us are visual learners, some kinesthetic, some auditory. This means there are a few downsides to audiobooks, and here are my pet peeves:

  • You don’t always take in everything first, or even second time
  • It’s easy to get distracted and miss elements (especially when multitasking)
  • You can fall into the trap of quantity over quality; consumption vs digestion
  • You can’t skip to a specific chapter or note like in a physical/digital book
  • You can’t highlight sections
  • Some books just don’t work in audio format – you might need to look at diagrams or there are exercises at the end of each section
  • You don’t get any sense of grammar or punctuation – this is only relevant if you are a writer 😉

Audiobooks cognitively reduce reading competence

This is one of the greatest downsides of audiobooks, so I will spend a little more time on it here. Don’t be dissuaded from Audiobooks – I read 90% of my books in this format – but be aware that you might not be getting the best out of the experience.

As you can see from my list of negatives above, your engagement with audio is more shallow than when you read words on a page. When you read, you can re-read sections that you don’t understand. When you are sitting and are totally focused on the book in your hands (digital or physical), there are no distractions. Your mind is fully engaged in the words on the page. You may flick back a page or two if you need to reference something – you build a memory of where things are – but you can’t do this with an audiobook so your retention will be lower.

Research conducted by the University of Waterloo titled The way we encounter reading material influences how frequently we mind wander (sic) had this to say about the effects of listening to a passage vs. reading it in silence:

“Listening to the passage was also associated with the poorest memory performance and the least interest in the material. Finally, within the silent reading and listening encounters we observed negative relations between mind wandering and both memory performance and interest in the material,”
Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, Canada

If our minds are constantly wandering from audiobooks, it will be extremely challenging to reach states of fluency with the material. Listening and reading do not provide the same cognitive experience and, therefore, are not synonymous enough to be used interchangeably for intellectual pursuits. As a reader for self-improvement, we must be wary of using tactics that aren’t as effective at helping us to learn.

How do I address this?

When I find a book that resonates with me, I will listen to it more than once. Sometimes twice, three times or more. Maybe not back to back – I allow some time for the information to soak in – but I will revisit books I find important a number of times. And reading at an increased speed helps you spend your limited time efficiently.

For the few books that I really choose to embrace, I buy a copy of the book on Kindle so that I can read in more depth and actually study sections that are more relevant to me. I can highlight sections, make notes and really get to grips with the subject matter. I may even journal my thoughts, and for some books write a précis in Evernote as if I am studying the subject for an exam.

Listening to books is still excellent and ideal to help you grasp the main points of the book, but is still no substitute for studying the material in the first person. That’s how we used to learn at school, and that’s why it helps us remember facts much more effectively. Here’s my pseudo-science spectrum:

  1. Listen to an Audiobook once = Skimming
  2. Listen to an Audiobook twice = Cramming
  3. Listen to an Audiobook three or more times = Study
  4. Reading the Book = Learning
  5. Making notes, highlight and journalling = Deep Learning

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