ROOTS AND WINGS

I recently heard this phrase at a life celebration of a beloved teacher of young children.  She opened a nursery school years ago where it was her mission to provide her students with roots and wings, and I thought it was a wonderful expression of her life’s work.

The same philosophy applies to all of you pursuing a career in court reporting.  Think of your education as forming the foundation, or roots, for your future success.  All the courses you are taking are preparing you for what lies ahead.  They are the tools you will call upon every day when you are on the job writing and then editing your work.

Your primary responsibility as a reporter is to produce a timely verbatim transcript using your best judgment and experience.  This skill set is constantly evolving.  A good reporter will learn something new with every assignment.  A good reporter, ever present and mindful, will be enriched from each experience.  Over time, these experiences will become part of an ever expanding repertoire from which you can draw.  The young root system that began in school, if nurtured, will mature and grow stronger.   It will be the foundation upon which to build an enduring and rewarding career.

Once in the working world, good reporters have the potential to spread their wings and become great reporters.  It doesn’t happen overnight — it is a deliberate process years in the making — but if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone and trust the solid roots beneath you, the rewards in store are many.

Great reporters constantly try to “up” their game, outdo their personal bests.  They have a strong work ethic which means that they meet their deadlines without fail.  Because of the deference they hold for the process, every matter is treated with respect and held in confidence.  They accommodate every client request to the best of their ability, paying attention to the smallest of details.  They take on the most arduous of assignments, even volunteer for them.  In short, they are the accomplished peers we all respect and the sought-after professionals whom lawyers can trust.

So make the most of your time in school.  Take this opportunity to challenge yourself to the max.  Set high expectations for yourself.  Cultivate your root system!  The roots you are putting in place now will allow you to spread your wings and become the very best reporter you can be.

OH, CHUTE!

I thought you would enjoy this story that happened to an esteemed colleague of mine, Ralph Simpson, when he competed in his third Massachusetts Speed Contest.

As a bit of background, the Massachusetts speed contests were instituted for the first time in 1975 and ran through 1979.  Ed Varallo prepared all five contests and dictated all of them.  The requirement for entering was that you had to have your Certificate of Merit.  The three legs were Literary at 210 wpm, Legal Opinion at 220 wpm, and Q&A at 270 wpm.  Back in those days, contestants had to manually type their takes, and there was a time limit for typing each leg.

Ralph still vividly remembers the tension he felt in anticipation of the start of the contests.  “I had the feeling that words were being fired at me like a machine gun and any hesitation could be fatal.  It required all the concentration I could bring.  Each five-minute take seemed to go on forever, and you just had to hang on.”

Ralph won the contest in 1975 with an average overall score of 99.59 and won again in 1976 with an average overall score of 98.15.  Incidentally, in 1976 he was the only reporter who qualified on the Q&A; in other words, he was the only reporter to score with 95% accuracy or better on that leg.  Two trophies in two years!

In his third contest in 1977, Ralph came in first on the Literary leg with a 99.52 score.  He also came in first on the Legal Opinion leg with a 99.27 score.  Although he came in with a fantastic score of 99.33 on the Q&A leg, with an overall test score average of 99.37, he came in second overall.  The trophy went to Jonathan Young that year, another Boston great.

So what tripped Ralph up on the Q&A leg that year?   He transcribed “chute” when it should have been “shoot.”  He only made nine total errors on the Q&A leg, but he made this particular error six times, which cost him his third trophy.  In retrospect, he said that “chute” didn’t even jump out at him as being an error during his transcription.

Being the good sport that he is, Ralph still finds it “amusing” that this happened to him, and he has taken some ribbing for his blunder over the years.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t take away from his great accomplishments as a speed contest champion or as a reporter of over four decades.

Ralph went on to compete in the remaining two contests, in 1978 and 1979, and had an honorable third-place showing in each.  He remains a wealth of information and a sought-after resource when we need advice and wisdom, which is just about every day.  Ralph has been with this firm for 46 years!

Thank you, Ralph, for this walk down memory lane!

Do Yourself a Favor: Stay in School

Whether or not to stay in court reporting school can pose a serious dilemma.  Perhaps you are wrestling with this very decision.  I know that many students, feeling the pressure of mounting debt, are tempted to jump into the working world sooner than they really should.  If this is something you are considering, I would urge you, if at all possible, to stay in school and graduate from your program before you take on any assignments. The longer you stay in school and adhere to a disciplined practice regimen, the better your chances for success.  Continuing your studies will be money well spent in the end.

Starting out as a working reporter is very difficult.  There is a steep learning curve.  Getting down every word will tax your stamina and concentration.  There will be days when you will be expected to work without a break; when you will have witnesses who mumble all day; and when the testimony contains more acronyms than words.  As if all these things weren’t enough, there are other on-the-job duties that you will be responsible for.  It’s a lot of pressure for a young reporter.  To complicate things, some of the people you will encounter may not be pleasant, as the nature of litigation is confrontational and emotions can run high.  The bottom line is that the lawyers will be expecting a verbatim record, and it is your job to produce it.

If you leave school and go to work too early, you are putting the one professional thing you own at risk:  your reputation.  Your good name has value, and you must do all you can to protect it.  Every transcript you prepare reflects on you.  It would be a shame to have a tarnished reputation before you even get your career off the ground.

If you wait to finish your education, you will have more practice under your belt and more resources at your disposal to improve your skills.  It is much easier to push for speed when you are already in the studying mode.  If you are working, you will be busy editing your transcripts, and finding time to spend on speed-building will be more difficult.  It is counterproductive to report when you are struggling to keep up and dropping too much; and when your writing is messy and full of holes, not only will you run the risk of not being able to read back when called upon, but you will be spending an excessive amount of time editing.  Furthermore, and most importantly, always relying on audio rather than your skills to get the job done is a huge hindrance and not the way to advance your career.  This cannot be emphasized enough.

Producing a verbatim transcript is an important responsibility.  Real people, businesses, and concerns are affected.  Your transcript will be examined and dissected by attorneys on all sides, their clients, and possibly experts.  Do yourself a favor and don’t work until you have graduated and interned with a reputable professional.  Although some states do not require certification to work, the ideal scenario would be to have a certification under your belt before you report.  This will cement your professional position, boost your confidence, and make you more desirable to an employer.

The benefits of staying in school far outweigh the “benefits” of leaving early.  To quote Aristotle, “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” 

Test Anxiety

We’ve all been there.  The nerves, the shaking, the sweaty palms.

Taking a skills speed test is unlike the usual testing experience.   When you take a written exam, you have the benefit of mulling over an answer and going back to the question at a later time.  If an essay is required, you can take a few minutes to formulate your thoughts so you can respond in an organized manner.  Although there is a time limit, you have flexibility in the way you can use that time.

When you as court reporting students are taking your skills tests, you have no such luxury.  You need to be spot on at that very moment.  You need to write every word, hit the right keys, and keep up the seemingly relentless pace.  You have only so much time to transcribe.  And as if that weren’t stressful enough, the pass rate is not 70%.  It’s 95%!  It’s no wonder that test anxiety is a major issue for so many in this field.

There’s a lot of advice out there on what to do to mitigate test anxiety; for instance, get plenty of rest the night before, eat a healthy breakfast, and engage in deep breathing exercises.  Some believe exercise helps to calm nerves; some believe in meditation.  Positive mental rehearsal is another technique used by many as a means to enhance positive results.  All these suggestions have merit, and they’re worth pursuing.

Unfortunately, there is no foolproof solution to calming those test jitters.  What works for one person may not work for another.  Each of us has to find our own way in this regard.  One thing is for sure:  Anxiety comes with the territory in this profession.  Even when you are out in the working world, there will be times when your anxiety is through the roof.  You must find a way to deal with and overcome what can sometimes be a crippling fear.

On the other hand, I personally find that a little anxiety can actually be a good thing.  It gets the adrenaline going and keeps you on your toes.  The trick is to find that balance where you have just enough anxiety to propel you forward but not so much that your feelings of panic and dread sabotage you before you even get started.

For those of you who are prone to having test anxiety, the best advice I can give is to be prepared.  This means putting in as much meaningful practice time as you can.  Write cleanly, expand your vocabulary, build your dictionary.  Read back everything, examine your errors, and correct them.  Hone your concentration skills so you can eliminate distraction.  Keep a positive attitude and get rid of negative thoughts.  If you are stuck at a certain speed, consider that a temporary situation and resolve to keep on trying.  Even though you may have failed at your last testing attempt doesn’t mean you won’t succeed in the long run.  If you are practicing in an efficient and deliberate manner, even though you may think you are not making progress, you are.  You’ve passed tests before.  You’ve already had success!  You just have to pass some more.

Test anxiety is a part of every student’s learning experience.  It’s normal.  It’s sad that for many of you the anxiety is heightened because you haven’t passed a test for months, because you have no other financial options, or because you can’t run away from your obligations at home.   But don’t give up!  The good news is that there are wonderful job opportunities waiting for you when you graduate and become certified; and once out in the working world, the anxiety you feel today will dissipate as you gain more experience.

MULTI-VOICE DICTATION

As if Q & A dictation wasn’t hard enough, with only an attorney and witness speaking, now comes multi-voice dictation which adds one or two additional speakers to worry about.  At just about every deposition you will attend in the future, you will need to be able to identify at least one additional participant, so having a system in place to accurately identify speakers is vital.  This is especially important when you have multiple attorneys arguing, sometimes at a quick pace and often interrupting each other.  It is easy to get confused, lose your rhythm, and drop.  We’ve all struggled with this.  Thankfully, it is a skill that becomes easier with practice.

Some schools rely on tape for multi-voice dictation where the voices introduce themselves at the beginning.  I’ve heard of lone instructors changing their voice to designate a change in speaker.  Some schools have actual speakers giving live dictation in front of the classroom, which I think is ideal, as I prefer a visual frame of reference.  My school back in the day used a rigged contraption with lights on it, and my teacher would switch a light on to identify which “person” was speaking.

The reason I prefer a visual aid is because that is the way my speaker identification system is set up.  This system is based on physical placement.  It only matters if the person speaking is on the left or the right.  So if someone on the left is speaking, I will hit certain keys on the left.  If someone on the right is speaking, I will hit certain keys on the right.

As an example, let’s say you have four speakers in front of your classroom situated like this:

Speaker (left)   Questioner (Q)   Witness (A)   Speaker (right)

Your dictation will be in Q&A format until the speaker on the left interrupts.  When that happens, I hit SKWRAO.  When the speaker on the right interrupts, I hit EURBGS.  This eliminates precious seconds trying to remember a name, if he’s the plaintiff’s lawyer or the defendant’s lawyer, if he is conducting direct or cross, or any other identifier.  It allows you to react immediately based on a visual cue

When you become a reporter, one day you will be faced with multiple people seated around a conference table.  Consider the seating diagram below for nine additional participants besides the questioner and the witness.  The same principle applies.  There is no need to commit their names to memory.  You only have to assign them a “token” to keep track of them.  I have put the appropriate token next to each person based on their seating placement.

*For the questioner, I will write SKWRAO when he speaks in colloquy.  He is assigned that first token.  If the witness speaks in colloquy, I write WEUT/WEUT.

Counsel  SKWRAOT          Counsel  SEURBGS

Counsel  SKWRAOL          Counsel  TEURBGS

Counsel  SKWRAOP          Counsel  PEURBGS

Counsel  SKWRAOF          Counsel  HEURBGS

Questioner SKWRAO        Counsel  EURBGS

                                    Witness  WEUT/WEUT

(Reporter sits here)

If there is a person sitting at the far end of the table, opposite me, I usually hit the whole keyboard, which is also my designation for a judge.

Notice the pattern.  For the people on the left, your core bank will always be SKWRAO.  You will only need to add the F, P, L, or T, assigning them in order as they appear down the table.  The same applies to the people on the right.  Your core bank will always be EURBGS.  You will only need to add the H, P, T, or S, S being the person furthest away from you.  I hit my tokens twice because I am less apt to mistake it for a word.

There will be times when there will be more people than you have tokens for.  At that point you will have to become creative and assign other identifiers for people, such as what they’re wearing, or come up with other tokens using the upper banks, STPH and FPLT.  The scenario noted above, however, will be more than adequate for the majority of the time.   This system has worked very well for me over my career.  Try it and see if it works for you.

If you are practicing multi-voice dictation by means other than visual cues, it is definitely harder, in my opinion; however, this system can still work.  Just mentally assign each voice a token.  I think a left or right token is an easier option than writing a name, for instance.

Identifying speakers in multi-voice dictation certainly adds another layer of difficulty, especially when you are pushing for speed.  The key is to not overthink it too much and hit the token the second you hear a different voice.  There will be times when you hit the wrong token.  Be alert during the editing process to any comments or objections that seem out of place for that particular speaker.  Let context aid you in choosing who the correct speaker should be.  Obviously, the faster you can write, the more time you will have in your reservoir to be able to correctly stroke a Q, an A, and any colloquy that is interspersed throughout the dictation.

As much as you may be struggling with speaker identification now, there will come a time when you will be confident in your abilities to accurately identify everyone in a room.  You will actually welcome seeing many lawyers at a deposition because each lawyer represents a potential sale.  One reporter from this office got called out on a last-minute assignment and ended up selling 21 copies!  (Thankfully, not everyone spoke.)

So, as always, keep practicing.  “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” – Seneca

Tips for Passing the Q&A

I think it is safe to say that the Q&A leg is the nemesis of all court reporting students. Students learn early on that it is a long and grueling road trying to reach the 225 wpm goal required to pass the RPR.  I’ve mentioned in previous blogs how consistent and mindful practice will imbed the correct brain-to-finger connections essential to gaining speed and accuracy; but that aside, I thought I’d share with you three tips to help you on testing day that you may not have considered.

First of all, it may seem contrary to everything we are trained to do, but it may be a good idea to actually DROP during testing.  Sometimes you just can’t hold on.  If you cut your losses and immediately move on, you won’t dig yourself into a bigger hole trying to catch up, all the while writing unintelligible strokes.  The errors will add up quickly.  The “dropping” is easy; it’s the resumption that’s difficult to do, as it may be hard to get your rhythm back.  However, if you can stay calm and execute this strategy as the words are flying by, it may work in your favor.  Of course, if you do this throughout the Q&A take, you are not quite there yet and it’s time to regroup and practice some more.  This advice regarding dropping does not apply to your practice sessions, however.  Ultimately you will not gain speed if you don’t push yourself to the max when you practice.

My second thought would be to brief on the fly.  I still remember my first attempt at the CSR.  The street name “Furnace Brook Parkway” came up a few times.  This was long before briefs were even talked about – we wrote everything out back then – but if I’d had the benefit of this knowledge and had come up with a brief on the fly, I would have turned five strokes into one, sparing myself much anxiety and energy.  Briefing on the fly may not come easily to you, but try it during your practice sessions so you become accustomed to doing it.  If you can come up with a brief one or two times during a test, it might just be enough to get you a passing grade.

As an example, try the OIG brief.  I use this as a suffix on my right hand and use an initial sound or letter on my left hand.  So for “Furnace Brook Parkway,” a great brief would be FOIG.  The trick with any brief, though, is remembering what it stands for, which is especially challenging during a testing situation.  A word of caution:   Sometimes you will come up with a brief for “Norwegian Cruise Line” — NOIG, for instance — but the dictation may also include “Norwegian Cruise Lines” or “Norwegian Cruises.” Alternatively, you could just stick to NOIG for “Norwegian,” which would be a big timesaver in itself.

My last tip would be to transcribe your take even if you think you may not have passed.  You may have gotten more than you think you did!  For a 95% pass rate on the RPR exam, you are allowed 57 errors on the Q&A leg at 225 wpm.  It’s always useful to know what your score was, if you missed a passing grade by ten errors or 20.  Unless you think you absolutely blew it, it’s worth the effort and always good practice to transcribe.

Hopefully you will have enough time to carefully proofread your take.  Familiarize yourself with NCRA’s Grading Guidelines and what constitutes an error.  It is also important to pay attention to the content/story line when you are proofreading because doing so may provide clues that will aid you when transcribing.

It is not uncommon to be stuck at a certain speed for a long time and for months to go by before you pass another test.  Everyone hits a wall at some point and discouragement sets in.  You can’t break through, though, if you don’t keep trying.   “Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”  –  Harriet Beecher Stowe

Tips for Passing the Jury Charge

Most reporters agree that the jury charge is the easiest of the legs to pass. The reason is because it is the one take that is made up of dozens of phrases that are common to that leg and are repeated throughout the dictation. So at the outset you are at somewhat of an advantage because you can already anticipate some of the language that you will hear. Furthermore, since jury charges are basically the same format-wise, that is, a judge reading instructions to the jury, the dictation is narrower in scope which I have always found to be less intimidating.

The key to passing a jury charge is to use one-stroke briefs for the common phrases found in jury charge dictation. There are several briefs out there for “preponderance of the evidence,” for example, but choose a brief that immediately makes sense to you, one that you can adopt and remember easily. If it conflicts too much with your theory or if it causes you to hesitate when the words are flying by, that will defeat the purpose of using it!

What is also tricky about jury charge briefs is, as always, the little words.  Take this sequence:

*beyond a reasonable doubt

*beyond all reasonable doubt

*beyond any reasonable doubt

*beyond every reasonable doubt

There is a one-stroke brief for each of these phrases, but you will have to commit each specific brief to memory to avoid being charged an error for writing the wrong one. You cannot afford to be tripped up during test time. They may be “little” words, but they carry the same weight as every other word on test day. Not to be overlooked is the big difference in meaning between the four phrases.

Of course the great benefit of jury charge briefs is that they can buy you valuable time. Just when you think you can’t hang on any longer, you will hear “beyond every reasonable doubt.” You can hit it in one stroke, and you’ll be back in the game. Briefs can give you breathing room, a chance to catch your breath if only for a valuable second. Briefs can really make the difference between a pass or fail.

Check out the links below. I found them after doing a Google search. Pick out the briefs that you like and practice them until you own them. If you don’t like a suggested brief on the list, don’t use it. Look for another one or create one of your own. A brief has to make sense to you for you to retain it. The third link contains common words and phrases relating to jury service which you may find helpful.

https://quizlet.com/24505773/jury-charge-briefs-and-phrases-flash-cards/

http://www.flashcardmachine.com/jury-charge-phrasesbasic.html

http://www.txnd.uscourts.gov/jurors/common-words-and-phrases

If you frequent Facebook, check out these sites:  STENO BRIEFS, The Brief Exchange, Steno Briefs for court reporters, and A BRIEF a day keeps the doctor away. Fellow court reporters are more than eager to share their briefs with you.

Additionally, your software can help you.  For example, Stenograph’s Case CATalyst has Brief It.  You write a phrase often enough, and Case CATalyst will suggest a brief for you.  http://www.stenograph.com/HelpDeskDocs/Cat4V8/Using%20Brief%20It%20In%20Case%20CATalyst%209.05.htm

NCRA’s website also has a section called “Jury Charge Dictation Materials” which you can use as practice material.  Here is the link:

http://www.ncra.org/Membership/content.cfm?ItemNumber=11963&navItemNumber=11945

Incorporating jury charge briefs in your practice regimen will be your ticket to a pass on your next test, but you will have to know them inside and out so you can write them correctly without thought or effort.