Reading Aloud

How a Microphone and Social Incentives Made me a Better Reader

Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash

Reading long texts has always been a daunting task to me. A rocky mountain I seldom find myself brave enough to start climbing (unless forced to). I’ve never had good reading habits, except for a few, very intriguing novels with a powerful storyline, which I could actually read quite fast. But most of the readings I wish I could get done quickly are damn hard. In the era of book-summarizing services like Blinkist, audiobooks, and “CEO reading guides,” where people invest time and money to compress time and read more, my limited reading abilities are an actual obstacle to my knowledge development. How did I change that? I don’t know if I did, but here is what I found by experimenting on myself.

In short: I got significantly better a reading when I started reading aloud, record my voice, and share partial audio files with friends, who told me they ejoyed listening to my recordings, and that helped them stay motivated. The power of social incentives!

The Joy Pain of Reading

It all begun about a month ago, when I needed to read more books to dig into a new subject. I had a pile of books staring at me and I simply couldn’t find enough courage to get started. I’ve always been a very lazy reader, cherry picking the content I needed to get my job done and only seldom enjoying what others called “the joy of reading”. Few exceptions aside, that “joy” was actually a frustrating pain.

Most of the papers and other technical resources I had read during my academic career had been an authentic pain, with only a few exceptions. I do a decent amount of reviewing work, both internal (not public, for the company I work for) and external (I sit in some conferences review boards or technical commitees), and because of how review-oriented reading works, I pause reading very often to think about what I’ve just read, take notes, etc. So, slow reading, mostly. Truth is, I actually read a lot, but mainly because I have to, and I don’t quite realize how much I read. Possibly, this may have have created a negative bias about my actual reading abilities, to the point that starting and continuing a reading to the end is hard. Once I’m engaged, I get going, but getting started and concluding are the hardest parts.

Could I Motivate Myself to Read More?

The Web is filled with “how to motivate yourself to do X, Y, Z” guides. Ironically, these many and diverse guides on the same subject not only means that people find them useful, but also that there are enough instances of X, Y, Z problems to make these guides worth existing! In simple words, many people suffer from X, Y, Z problems. So, you’re not alone. This post is not meant to be yet another of such guides, but just a summary of my recent experience.

Important: I’m not writing this post as a result of following one of those X, Y, Z guides. Actually, I found about a generic “how to motivate yourself” guide, not about reading, which made me realize and reflect about the reasons why I’ve been reading more in the past month. I’m writing this in a retrospective way, not biased by the content of the guide I found. The guide—which I’ll share below—was helpful because it helped me understand the reasons of the change I had already embraced, without even noticing that.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

If you’re familiar with the basics of psychology, you know that there exist two, broad types of motivation in incentive theories: intrinsic (internal) motivation and extrinsic (external) motivation, and the latter is less powerful than the the former. When you’re intrinsically motivated to do something everything seems easy and smooth. For example, if you love your job you don’t perceive it as a due duty. If you like to play chess or cards, you look forward to play, regardless of any prizes. The prizes are external incentives that drive extrinsic motivation. By the way, that’s how I interpret the last minute of The Queen’s Gambit: “sygrayem!"

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation play an important role in education. If educators are able to find and trigger intrinsic incentive mechanisms—for instance by engaging the students with practical activities, involving them as part of the teaching experience—then the students are more likely to get intrinsically motivated to dig deeper into a subject…for the sake of it! Students perform better with a good balance of intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards, but both are necessary. Extrinsic rewards are often visible to others, so they become part of social interactions. Yes, I’m talking about grades. In the perfect system you study because you like the way the teacher teaches a subject, you get good grades (and you feel good the moment you get that reward!), other see those good grades and feel motivated to get good grades as well! On the other hand, if you only get extrinsic incentives—grades only—you won’t feel as good as when you get an intrinsic incentive, even when the grades are outstanding.

Back to readings, when you get sucked into a novel or a story in the news, and want to continue reading, that’s your intrinsic motivation at play. You almost don’t perceive that you’re reading, you get so immersed that it’s almost like flying through the words. That’s what happened, very few cases, honestly (I should be pickier while choosing books!), when I found a book that was a true joy to read. There are many online social networks about readings (e.g., Goodreads, Anobii), which, in addition to recommending good books based on your past readings, show how much others are reading. So, they make external (social) incentive factors into play: “look at how much your friend is reading”. I’ve tried some of them, but they never worked on me: I’m so slow at reading anyways that my social circle appears to be so far off me that I ended up closing the accounts because I found those numbers very depressing. Meh!

The Microphone that Brought in New Incentives

At the beginning of the first lockdown I purchased a decent (not professional) microphone, because what I had ahead of me was, heh, lots of virtual conferences! I got myself a Trust GTX 252+, which, considering the price range ($90–100), has a quite good, warm sound.

After recording the first presentation—and get disappointed about the very scarce conference attendance—I started to ponder how I could use that microphone in other ways. If you have small kids you know that doing actual work during lockdown is just a bliss. But small kids are a gold mine of opportunities and unexpected surprises. In this case my older one asked me to read him a book. He had “read” (through me and his mom) probably more than I’ve ever done in 6–7 times his age. This time I told him: “do you want to record the reading so you can share with your cousin?" And so I started recording my voice while reading his books, along with his (quite funny and entertaining) comments. We both enjoyed the activity, which we continued for about a month. Here you can see both an intrinsic incentive (reading became fun for both) as well as a social incentive (his cousin was happy to listen to his books whenever he wanted).

Important: Commercial and/or professional recording of copyrighted material should adhere to copyright laws as well as follow any additional licenses that come with the material in question; so, if you ever think about doing this professionally, I recommend that you think about starting a career as an audiobook narrator.

Read for Someone Else (Your Age)

At this point you could be thinking that reading child books is painless—to someone like with with poor reading habits—because they’re short. True! And extremely boring to most adults, I’d say. Especially if you’ve been reading them every, single, day at bedtime for the past year or so. That’s probably why I stopped doing that after about a month 😆

Meanwhile, about one month ago I started reading about Hermann Ebbinghaus' research on memory, and in particular about spaced repetitions, a technique that he experimented on himself to memorize long lists of nonsense syllables. I was particularly intrigued by the fact that he used to read the target pseudowords aloud. And I had recetly learned about how the phonological loop of working memory works:

Subvocal rehearsal loop (source: Oxford reference)

One of the two components of the phonological loop of working memory, functioning to keep information from decaying by mental repetition, and also translating visual information into phonological code where necessary for short-term memory. Also called an articulatory loop, an articulatory rehearsal loop, or an articulatory store.

So, putting all the pieces together, I decided to run an experiment on myself: I read aloud one chapter of a book I was reading, used my new shiny microphone and Audacity to record my voice, and I’ll listen to myself reading while doing other tasks, to see if I could memorize it better. I know, this does not replicate Ebbinghaus experiment, but bare with me, because at the end of the story this turns out to be just a pretext.

At a first glance, here’s what I recall I felt:

  • I felt extremely good and committed, from the very first words I spoke;
  • I could see the progress of my speech on the screen and the read pages quickly flipping;
  • I felt focused and distraction free.

I thought it was a very good start and I didn’t even know what was coming!

The Turning Point: Helping and Motivating Others

Almost for fun, I shared the recorded audio among my reading group, just to hear their thoughts. When I shared the MP3 file among my friends, they inundated me with many thank-you messages and lots of blinky emojis. One of them in particular was the key, the turning point. They said:

That’s awesome 😍 I felt so lost these days, now you gave me a guiding voice to listen to, and I can do that when I do my jogging! Thank you!!!!

See that? That closed the loop! The fact that I was helping someone (BTW, a total stranger, because we run this reading group remotely among strangers!) to stay motivated is what motivated me most! I could almost envision this person doing their activities while listening to my “guiding voice” (I think that was the most powerful phrase). I felt what I was doing had positive value for someone, and that was the best, instantaneous reward I could get.

A powerful social incentive!

Seeing Progress

Remember when I said that I wasn’t incentivized to use Goodreads & friends because I felt slow at reading compared to my social circle? It turned out I was faster than I thought, and I could monitor my progress pretty quickly by looking at the folder where I kept my recordings on my computer. And those lists have been growing constantly on daily basis, and so the compliments I received by my reading group, thanking me for what I was doing.

Seeing progress is the third ingredient towards behavior change. When we see the cumulative result of our work, we’re motivated to keep our behavior in that direction. But progress has to be measurable with an adequately-fine-grained unit. If you’re a lazy reader like me, and you’re measuring yourself by the number of books you read, then you’re stuck.

The TEDx Talk That Made Me Write This

So, why am I writing this? Just because I wanted to share? Nah! I mean, yes, but not only that. Yesterday I watched this TEDx Cambridge talk by Prof. Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL.

Prof. Sharot summarizes that it’s hard to change our behavior because most of our incentive programs are designed to threaten us by showing us all the bad things that could happen if we don’t adopt that behavior, while her experiments show that the opposite incentive program is much more powerful (we’re talking about 15% vs 90%!). So, instead of bombard our kids with things like “if you don’t read enough you’ll get bad grades” (which is what I’ve been bombarded with), let’s tell them “if you read you’ll become the fastest reader in the world”. It’s intuitive, I know, but if you think about it, it’s quite hard to implement. Why? Because you have to design a good reward system around it, which should show immediate positive rewards over time. And that’s not always practical.

So, the reason why I’m writing this piece is because Prof. Sharot’s talk enlightened me by showing all the ingredients that I already had on my plate, which were already at work to keep me motivated, but was quite nice to see them all condensed in that 15-minutes engaging talk, backed by scientific research!

Overall, a good way to change your behavior consists of these steps:

  1. use positive reward as opposed to negative, threatening scenarios; by the way, this teaches a good lesson to many industry fields, which often makes use of FUD to spread supposedly convincing marketing messages and incentivize prospects to purchase more; and yes, that’s why disinformation spreads so well as opposed to clear, fact-based information.
  2. bring in social incentives, so that you can see how others perceive your performance as well as compare yourself with others;
  3. find a way to monitor your progress as fast as possible, to get you immediate, measurable rewards; delayed rewards don’t work well, or they should be broken down into smaller, spaced rewards.

Hope you enjoyed reading this far, and please feel free to reach out with any comments!


  • Tali Sharot, “How to Motivate Yourself to Change Your Behavior”, TEDx Cambridge. Transcript, Video
  • Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ernest R Hilgard, “Atkinson and Hilgard’s Introduction to Psychology”, Cengage Learning, 2014, 16th edition. Book details
  • Hermann Ebbinghaus, Wikipedia. Viewed on: Dec 14th, 2020.
  • Spaced Repetitions, Wikipedia. Viewed on: Dec 14th, 2020.
  • Nonsense Syllables, Wikipedia. Viewed on: Dec 14th, 2020.
Federico Maggi
Federico Maggi
Senior Researcher

I enjoy doing research on various cyber-security topics. I work with Trend Micro Research in a global team that focuses on technology and cyber-crime research.