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Dictate Better with These Tips From Somebody Who’s Done It For 50 Years

Dictation results in better structured and more creative writing of letters, essays etc. than either handwriting or typing out your own thoughts for most people. Learn the principles of excellent dictation from somebody who’s dictated documents professionally for nearly fifty years.

[Ed: Colin Oberin has very kindly agreed to write about knowledge of the art of dictation. His dictation was generally to a secretary taking shorthand or to a tape recorder for later transcription, but many of the principles are the same as when dictating for a speech to text program such as Dragon Dictate. I have added notes where appropriate to explain how these ideas can be used specifically by Dragon Dictate users. – Ricky]

I have lost count of the many thousands of letters, memos etc. which I dictated in a career of nearly 50 years (and counting). However, I clearly remember the first one. Exactly 2 months after my sixteenth birthday I started work and during the very first week I was asked to write a letter to one of our customers. I remember sitting at my desk jotting a few words on a pad and then crossing them out again as I tried to work out how to write a professional sounding letter. At that moment the Sales Manager walked by and asked how I was getting on in my first week. He then asked what the sales staff had me doing. I naively said I had been asked to write this letter.

Colin Oberin
Portrait of Colin Oberin

Learning The Hard Way

Without hesitation the Sales Manager said he would teach me how to write a letter. I was instantly relieved – but then I found out what he had in mind. After sitting me down in his office the Sales Manager called in his secretary. In those days letters were typed on manual typewriters using carbon paper between the pages to generate a copy for the file. That was a specialist job and mistakes were hard to correct so it was important to get it right first time.

Most letters were dictated to a secretary (always female in those sexist days) who took down the letter in shorthand and then typed it up later. Letters could also be hand written and handed to the secretary to be typed up but I later discovered that this was frowned upon. The secretary was friendly and polite but old enough to be my mother and as she sat there with her pencil poised and shorthand pad balanced on her knee I was petrified.

The Sales Manager asked me what I wanted to say in my letter. Not surprisingly I was dumbstruck. He then said: “This is how to do it” and promptly dictated the letter for me with no notes and no apparent preparation. He then told me that in future I was to dictate all my letters to one of the secretaries and that although he was happy for me to write my letters out by hand while I was still learning what to say, I should screw up the handwritten draft before I started dictating.

It was a tough initiation but a lesson which stood me in good stead for the rest of my career. I followed the advice and slowly improved to the point where, after a few months, I didn’t need to write out my letters in full any more. I just jotted down a few points to guide my thinking and was then ready to start dictating. After a year or two I was able to dictate even complex letters without any written notes and only a rough outline in my head.

How To Dictate – The Principles

The aim of dictation is, of course, to clearly and concisely convey verbally, the wording you want converted to written form. While I was learning the art of dictating to a secretary, the secretary would give me tips on how to dictate in a way which made it easier for her to understand what I wanted typed. If I was mumbling or not speaking clearly enough, or not explaining what punctuation I wanted, the secretary would remind me. In that way mistakes were minimised and accuracy improved.

Today the dictation program on your computer won’t give you that type of personalised guidance (or ask about your weekend) and it will not be effective in transcribing your dictation if you aren’t dictating in a way the program can interpret accurately. Therefore you need to work out for yourself the technique which gets the best results from your program.

Colin's office desk circa 1978, with a 3 year old girl sitting at it.
Colin’s office desk circa 1978, with a 3 year old Ricky Buchanan sitting at it – Colin is my Dad.

Whether dictating for human or automatic transcription, the same principles apply and, based on my experience, attention to the following points should improve your dictation skills and hence the accuracy of the transcribed result:

Engage brain before mouth
Knowing what you want to say before you start to speak is important. Correcting/changing the spoken word is easy in conversation but extremely difficult during dictation – better to get it right first time
Have a plan
If you are not experienced at dictating, learn the art. Start by writing out what you want to say and then reading it aloud to the dictation program. Then try dictating from memory what you have written rather than actually reading aloud and see if that works better. As your technique improves so will the accuracy of transcription by the program. With practice you should progress from writing out what you want to dictate to just jotting down an outline and ultimately to just making a written (or in time mental) note of points you want to cover before you start dictating.

[Ed: For those of us using Dragon Dictate because of disabilities writing out a draft won’t be practical in most cases, but I find it still helps to think about what I’m going to dictate before starting. Figure out what comes first, what points I need to make, what comes last. I don’t know if this is less effective than writing things out as I’ve never been able to try writing things out, but it works for me.]

Practice makes perfect
If you’re inexperienced try dictating into a recorder and then playing it back. Listen critically as if you had to write down what is said and see if you can improve clarity next time.

[Ed: You could use the iPhone’s Voice Memo recorder or similar to record for this purpose or simply use the “Play that back” command in Dragon Dictate to have it play the audio of the most recently dictated phrase.]

Don’t babble
Speaking slowly and clearly yields better results
Don’t become a metronome
Speaking in phrases, just as you would if giving a speech, is much more effective than s p e a k i n g s l o w l y a n d c l e a r l y b u t w i t h o u t a n y i n t o n a t i o n or p h r a s i n g.
Don’t speak too softly
If the machine can’t hear you it won’t ask you to speak up.

[Ed: But you can and should monitor your volume in the Dragon Dictate status window.]

The program will record what you say
… not what you meant to say, so try to speak clearly and only say what you want written.
Avoid fillers
You know when we are not sure what to say, you know, we fill the space with, umm, fillers. Avoid them or, you know, the program will, err, type them.
Wait Quietly
If you are not sure what to say next then simply stop while you think before starting again – the computer will wait for you. That sure beats having to go back and edit out all the “you know” type filler words later.
If writer’s block strikes dictate an instruction to yourself
Something like as “finish this paragraph later” – and proceed with the parts you can get done rather than sitting worrying about what to say next. You can always fix the order with judicious cutting and pasting during editing
Don’t use truncated speech
Written language differs from common speech and if “ya wanna look OK written” dictate that “you want your wording to look appropriate when written”
Remember to punctuate as you dictate
When you want a comma or a period inserted or a new paragraph started, include the instruction in your dictation.
Learn how to make a correction
Either just dictate a note to yourself about the mistake and correct it later when editing, or learn the options available in your program such as how to back space and over-record if your program allows this.

[Ed: With Dragon Dictate it’s best if you correct mistakes as you go, use the tutorials and user manual if you don’t already know how.]

When the dictation is finished the job is not yet done.

Proofreading the written word to correct mistakes (whether your mistake or the program’s mistake doesn’t matter) is vital. If, like most people, you tend to read what you meant to say rather than what is actually written down when you proof read, try reading the written word aloud. That way is easier to notice problems with the written word. Another trick is to read what is written to see if it conveys the right message – not to look for mistakes.

[Ed: You can use Dragon Dictate’s “read document” or “read selection” to get the computer to read aloud to you too.]

Dictation is an art but once learned it will save time and allow you to order your thoughts so as to create a coherent narrative requiring minimal editing. For most people, dictation results in better structured and more creative writing of letters, essays etc. than either handwriting or typing out your own thoughts. Somehow the mechanics of recording your thoughts onto paper or a screen gets in the way of interesting and creative writing for most people.

– Colin Oberin

Dragon Dictate for Mac: Simply smarter speech recognition

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2 thoughts on “Dictate Better with These Tips From Somebody Who’s Done It For 50 Years”

  1. Nice article. But really there is nothing better than the human touch to filter out all the bodily noises and to correct the author’s English where appropriate! (Sorry Colin!).

    I have been that short-hand typist and could probably write a book on my experiences too from the other side of the desk! One day, one day….!

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