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Legally speaking, how to become a great dictator

Dictation might come naturally to some, but for most, a few simple guidelines will help make transcription of their sound files easier and more accurate, while saving their firm money too.

Whether you choose a dictation machine or a Smartphone with the latest dictation app, the first rule is simple: don’t hold it too close. The microphone should be about six inches (15cm) from your mouth to prevent words becoming muffled by other sounds, such as the sounds you make when you breathe or the puff of air that hits the microphone when you use plosive words like ‘police’ or ‘barrister’.

Keeping background noise to a minimum is essential for clear dictation and at the very least dictators should avoid shuffling papers or tapping keyboards. While it can be tricky in a busy office or chambers, it’s better to find somewhere quiet, rather than constantly having your dictation interrupted when the office gets too loud.

To fine tune your efforts, you can experiment with the microphone’s sensitivity settings to reduce the distance at which the microphone will pick up sounds and ensure your voice is the loudest thing the transcription typist hears. It’s important to pause after you press the record button (and again before you stop recording) to prevent your words being clipped each time.

Perhaps the most obvious and yet most important point to appreciate when dictating is the need to speak slowly and as clearly as possible. The better your diction, the better your dictation.

If you send your dictation externally for transcription, it is worth bearing in mind most service providers will charge by the length of the dictation. It might be tempting therefore to speak more quickly, but it’s more important to avoid as many ‘ums’ and ‘erms’ as possible, which will naturally lengthen your dictation, add nothing to your work and cost you more.

Experienced, qualified legal transcription typists will only punctuate the transcription as directed and add nothing unless told to do so; an unwanted comma can significantly change the meaning of what was intended, particularly in legal or medical transcriptions.

For this reason, you must dictate all punctuation or you will need to spend longer amending the returned transcription. When you want to put something in brackets, say ‘open parentheses’, dictate the contents for the brackets and when finished say ‘close parentheses’. It’s common sense really, but worth remembering that time spent on inserting punctuation into your dictation is time saved on formatting the returned transcription.

If the final document requires particular formatting, you can add it to the dictation to save time later. When you want to underline, capitalise or bold certain elements of your text, simply say STOP and then issue instructions for how the next word, words, sentence etc. should be treated.

For example, to centre something in the document, say ‘stop, centred’, then pause and continue dictating the passage that should be centred. To return to normal justification after you have finished dictating the content to be centred, say ‘stop, left justified’, then continue with your dictation.

You should only need to spell out obscure words, names and addresses, etc., as most experienced, qualified transcription typists will have a good working knowledge of the English language and commonly used legal expressions, including Latin terms.

The recommended phonetic alphabet to use when spelling words is the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet (see above illustration).

Numbers can be a problem in a dictation, but made easier when delivered in the same manner throughout, allowing typists to get used to your style. It is recommended that years are dictated as spoken, so 1977 becomes ‘nineteen seventy-seven’ and the number zero is dictated as ‘zero’ or ‘nought’ and never as ‘oh’. 

Typically, you will also need to dictate the relevant reference numbers at the start of your dictation to identify to which client or case the transcription refers. If you are utilising outsourced transcription services, the typists may have access to your system remotely, allowing them to complete work within the relevant files utilising existing templates.

Whether internal typists or outsourced service providers are to undertake the transcription, the fee-earner should still be able to speak directly to the typist and discuss any specific requirements. Dictation software will also typically allow clients to include notes with their sound files, where typists can view any special instructions from the dictator concerning their dictation.

Outsourced service providers have the advantage of having typists spread throughout the country, which often allows them to provide typists used to working with particularly strong regional accents that a single location firm may find more problematic.

To ensure you receive accurate transcriptions that can save you time formatting or correcting, the best advice is to pay attention to the quality of your dictation. Remember, press record and speak clearly.

Maxine Park is co-director and co-founder of DictateNow, a dictation outsourcing and systems provider.

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17 November 2015

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