Energize your Practice Sessions

I think most of you would agree that getting motivated to practice every day is one of the most difficult daily struggles court reporting students face.  Not only does practicing take hours out of your day, but it requires deep concentration, endurance, and, oh, yes, accuracy.

It all comes down to self-discipline.  It means resisting the temptation to shorten your practice session or skipping practice altogether.  It means a willingness to forgo things you’d rather be doing for a payoff in the end.  When you are out in the working world, self-discipline will mean working overtime to meet a deadline, missing out on social events, and working nights, weekends, and holidays to keep up with your backlog.  As one of my colleagues, Ken DiFraia, RPR, said, “If you’re not into it from the get-go, this profession is not for you.”

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I always practiced alone.  It’s the only way I could focus.  Ken, however, mentioned that he used to practice with another student, so it’s something you may want to consider.  He said there were many benefits:

  • it broke up the monotony of practicing alone
  • it allowed you to share ideas, briefs, tips, etc.
  • it provided for friendly competition for readback and speed
  • it provided much needed support from a peer

This option may not be for everyone, and it shouldn’t replace time practicing alone.  It may be worth trying a couple of times a week to see if it helps improve your skill and your spirits.  Choose a partner carefully and set up a plan for each practice session.  This will keep you on task and avoid wasted time.  It is interesting to note that Ken and his fellow student practiced together from the outset, and both passed their first 225 in the beginning of the summer session after their second year.

Sometimes shaking things up a little can prove beneficial.  It may be worth a try.  Good luck! 

Shadowing a Reporter Too Soon is Counterproductive

There are two schools of thought on this issue.  Some believe that sitting out with a working reporter at any speed is helpful.  I personally feel that you shouldn’t shadow a reporter until you have passed your 200 Q&A. 

The purpose of shadowing a court reporter is to familiarize yourself with the job, but it also should serve as a gauge of where you currently are and where you have yet to go.  If you sit out after you’ve passed your 200s, it will be a more realistic test of your abilities. You still have to pass your 225s to earn your RPR, and those extra 25 wpm are the hardest to attain!  Further, any reporter will tell you that even 225 wpm just doesn’t cut it on many days.  The gap between 180 and 225 is a big one, and sitting out at that speed would be discouraging.  Your time would be better spent practicing.

When you are ready to sit in with a reporter, you should have the mindset of putting yourself in the reporter’s place and envisioning that YOU are the reporter of record.  Learning how to swear in witnesses, mark exhibits, note stipulations, etc., is the easy part.  The hard part is creating a record.  Pretend that you are there alone.  Can you keep up?  Would you have to interrupt often?  How are you handling colloquy, the arguing, the frequent readback?  In short, would you be able to prepare a quality transcript of the entire proceedings?

Working reporters enjoy taking students out and sharing their knowledge.  This is a perfect setting to learn what you don’t in the classroom:  the reporter’s routine, tricks of the trade, use of technology.  Maybe your reporter is writing realtime for the attorneys and has provided iPads to all counsel.  You will be amazed and inspired to witness this live!  Take advantage of this special opportunity to ask your questions and get tips on what you need to do to improve.

I still remember vividly sitting out as a student.  The attorneys were always gracious, allowing me to sit in on what are always considered confidential matters.  I was grateful; they could have refused my attendance, but it was never an issue.  I was allowed a front-row seat, but I tried to be as unobtrusive and respectful as possible.  What I most remember was trying to keep up.  My fingers were still moving long after the reporter’s fingers had stopped.  I soaked it all in and took something away from every session.  Lastly, I always took a moment to thank the reporter and the attorneys for the opportunity.

Shadowing a reporter is a great experience, but it should be saved for when you are close to approaching the finish line.  At that point you’ll have more practice time under your belt and a better chance of success.  If you are not quite there yet, keep putting in as much quality practice time as you can.  Your turn to shadow a reporter will come.  I wish you all a productive learning experience out in the “real world”!

STUDENT COURT REPORTER: SETTING ACHIEVABLE GOALS

Have you been stuck at the same speed for way too long?  Perhaps you should give some thought to setting goals.  Those who set goals have greater success than those who don’t.  The process helps you focus.  If you set attainable goals, you will experience success more often which will help you stay more motivated over the long term.  Setting goals should be a part of your daily mindset.  Implementing them will help you get to the finish line faster.

There are two goals you should be working on each day:  a speedbuilding goal and a goal for addressing your problem areas.

Regarding speedbuilding, of course your main goal, which is a constant, is to pass your next speed test, but this entails increasing your speed by a whopping 20 wpm at each level.  That is a steep hill to climb.  Instead of practicing a full five-minute take at 20 wpm over your comfortable writing speed, try breaking it down into five one-minute segments.  Make it your goal to tackle a single one-minute segment per day.  Try to write it as perfectly as possible.  Spend time on the words or sections

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that are tripping you up.  Don’t accept drops or misstrokes.  Don’t give up.  Read back every take.

After you master the second minute, try writing the two-minute take perfectly.  Then after you master the third minute, try writing the three-minute take perfectly.  Make it your goal to write the entire five-minute take without error by the end of the week.  Practicing in one-minute increments is less daunting, and success is more readily achievable.  Correct muscle memory training comes with this kind of deliberate and consistent practice.  Your writing will flow more smoothly from your brain to your fingers, leading to less hesitation and more speed.  Be sure to get in as much practice time as possible, two hours a day at a minimum outside of class.

Improving your speed is a must, but you won’t get there if you do not address your problem areas.  When you critically examine your writing, your weaknesses will become apparent, and you can develop a game plan to improve.  If you don’t read back, you are wasting your time.

Choose a problem area that needs your immediate attention.  After that problem is solved, pick another one to work on.  Maybe you are having difficulty with numbers (dollars, cents, time, dates); maybe you can’t remember briefs; or maybe homonyms are your nemesis.  Whatever the issue, break it down into manageable parts and build from there.  Write hints on stickies and put them on your machine for easy reference.  This should be an ongoing exercise over the course of your career.  Good reporters are constantly looking for ways to fine-tune their skill so they can reduce their untranslate rate.  If you are proactive in this area, it will reap huge dividends over time.

If you set achievable goals for speedbuilding and goals for addressing problem areas, you will have a roadmap to success.  Setting goals gives purpose to your practice sessions so they will not weigh as heavily on your mind or, more importantly, your spirit.  Good luck!

 

Practicing in Dive Bars

Having a son in the music business, and watching his career grow from the sidelines, has been an enlightening experience.  Unlike the court reporting profession, where court reporters are a rarity, musicians abound.  Despite this disparity, musicians and court reporters share a common challenge:  both have a high mountain to climb to achieve success.  I thought I’d share my son’s experience.  Perhaps it will inspire you in your court reporting journey.

Jay got his lucky break working at the famed Medieval Manor dinner theater in Boston as one of two minstrels.  He spent countless hours learning the script and practicing the accompanying music.  With the Medieval Manor gig as his mainstay on weekends, Jay continued writing songs and honing his guitar skills during the week.  He made dozens JayPsarosof calls a month to get gigs around town.  Night after night he would lug his equipment from one dive bar to the next for meager pay and hopefully a meal.  He would sit in a dark corner and play his heart out until closing time.  Sometimes people would listen; many times they would not.

Over the years, the dive bar gigs took their toll.  He grew impatient and discouraged.  Despite his exasperation, Jay pressed on, all the while increasing his repertoire and improving his skill.  Slowly he started to find his own voice in the crowded field of musicians.  His fan base started to grow as did his confidence.  He made some good connections which led to better paying gigs in nicer venues, more recognition, and some critical acclaim.

Incredibly, amazing opportunities started coming his way.  He was asked to co-host the first ever Levitate Music Festival featuring the Original Wailers and has since opened for Ziggy Marley, Boz Scaggs, the Mavericks, Daughtry, Los Lonely Boys, Lisa Loeb, and others at beautiful venues.  These are the gigs he always dreamed of and the gigs he lives for.

Jay’s modest success didn’t happen overnight.  It was ten years in the making.  I remember the night he opened for Ziggy Marley, psyched beyond words, only to play the next night in a dive bar for less than a handful of people.  The difference couldn’t have been more glaring.  What he realized, however, was that his Ziggy Marley gig, and all the other notable ones, would not have been possible without the grind of playing in those dive bars night after night after endless night.  It is where he honed his act.  In hindsight, it was valuable practice time, an opportunity to improvise, make his errors, learn from them, improve, and try out new material.  Jay still grinds it out every night, as the thrilling opening gigs don’t come along every day.  He is never satisfied, always pushing through the drudgery and preparing for the next unknown opportunity.

So how does Jay’s experience mirror yours, the court reporting student’s?  Practicing days on end is your dive bar experience.  Embrace it all, the ups and the downs!  This is the foundation on which your future success will depend.  Continue to work through the inevitable disappointments and set your goals.  Practice, make your mistakes, evaluate them, adjust, and improve.  The dividends will come if you continue to hone your act.  You can’t hit the “big time” as a Registered Professional Reporter without paying your dues.

ARE YOU READY TO READ BACK?

It will happen to you.  You will be reporting a difficult deposition, struggling with the accent, the speed, or the subject matter, and the lawyer will say, “Miss Reporter, can you read that back.”  The attorney assumes that you heard it, understood it, and wrote it all down.  But what if you didn’t?

There are three scenarios on readback:

  • You hit it out of the park.  You got every word and are reading back confidently, loudly, and clearly.  It is so satisfying to successfully deliver on a specific request.
  • You will have the majority of the requested question or answer, but there are some messy outlines or maybe a dropped word or two.  You are unsure it will hang together when you read it aloud.  If you are called upon to read back under this type of circumstance, my advice would be to take a few seconds to scan your screen quickly and read the passage to yourself.  Sometimes you just missed a small word that makes all the difference, or perhaps you misheard a word but it suddenly becomes clear.  In any case, read back what you have and let the chips fall where they may.  If your readback of a question indeed fell a little short, the attorney may choose to repeat, rephrase, or strike it altogether.  If you were asked to read back an answer, it is possible that the attorney didn’t understand it either and will ask the witness to repeat it.
  • You missed so much of the requested question or answer that it is impossible to reconstruct it in a few seconds.  You were going to interrupt to ask for it to be repeated, but you were asked to read back before you got a chance.  In cases like this, you can say, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t get that.  I was just going to ask you to repeat it.”  They will most likely oblige.

Readback isn’t restricted to Q&A.  As reporters we are often asked to read back colloquy.  Sometimes these exchanges are quite heated, and readback can be challenging.  They are just as vital as the questions and answers, however, as the attorneys are stating their objections and are preserving their positions for the future.  You have to be prepared to read back colloquy, too, and sometimes the exchanges can be quite lengthy.

Keep in mind that all reporters have had trouble reading back at some point.  There are so many variables that make our job difficult.  Some attorneys understand what we are up against, and some don’t.  Some care and some don’t.  You will be forgiven if it is a rare occurrence.  If you continue having difficulty, however, it will not go unnoticed.  Your agency may receive a call requesting a different reporter the next time, or you may be dismissed and replaced with another reporter that very same day.

Sometimes the reason for the readback is simply to satisfy the attorney that he has a reporter with the requisite skills.  If an attorney suspects he is dealing with a newbie, he may ask the reporter to read back random questions or answers early on to gauge whether or not the reporter is equipped to handle his case.  He would prefer not to wait until receipt of the transcript to determine if there is a problem.

So how can you increase your chances of reading back successfully?  Don’t be a mindless writer.  It only makes sense that if you pay attention and try to follow the testimony, you will have some context and point of reference from which to draw upon, and your chances will increase that you will be able to read back without error.   Also, if you make a habit of looking at your screen while you are writing realtime, you will be able to identify your misstrokes and make mental notes of what words those misstrokes should be.  Lastly, not to be overlooked is the obvious:  speed.  It is a given that the faster you can write the less you will drop and the cleaner your notes will be.

As a student, the more you read back, the better off you will be!  Practice reading back aloud everything you take.  Pretend you are at an actual deposition and see if your readback will make the grade.  Not only will it force you to confront your writing issues and improve your skill, but it will be a good exercise in learning how to keep your composure under pressure.  This will pay off in the long run.  Reading back is one of the benchmarks upon which attorneys will judge you.  Make it your moment to shine.

BE LIKE “MJ”

Training to become a court reporter is so grueling, it’s no surprise that feelings of despair can become overwhelming and the desire to quit can get stronger with each passing day.   If you find yourself in this predicament, you have to stop and reassess.  Make a deliberate effort to push the negative thoughts and feelings out of your mind and dig deep to find a renewed sense of purpose.  Many have come before you, feeling as you do right now, and have found a way to succeed.  You can do it too!  Remember:  This is a marathon, not a sprint.

I am reminded once again of the following quote by the basketball legend Michael Jordan“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career.  I’ve lost almost 300 games.  26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winninMichael Jordan2g shot and missed.  I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.”

I find these words so inspiring because he actually kept track of the shots he missed and the games he lost.  Who does that?  What he doesn’t mention in this quote is that he won six NBA championships, was named the NBA Finals MVP six times and its Most Valuable Player five times.  He also doesn’t mention the fact that he is a two-time Gold Medal Olympian and the recipient of the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom.  He has other accolades too numerous to mention, and, oh, he has a hugely successful sneaker line too.  Good thing he didn’t let failure define him.

So how did MJ succeed?   His next quote might give you a clue:  “The minute you get away from the fundamentals – whether it’s proper technique, work ethic or mental preparation – the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing.”

This is so true.  If you are not progressing as you should, you need to critically assess the three items mentioned above and identify in particular your weaknesses so you can form a plan to eliminate them.  All three are integral to your moving ahead.

Regarding your technique, it always helps to return to the basics when you are stuck:  deliberate incremental practice, emphasis on error-free writing, and readback.  Maybe you need to lower your speed to gain your bearings again.  Is a review of your theory in order?  Are you tackling those tough phrases or just letting them pass by?  I firmly believe that spending two hours working on writing an error-free, difficult one-minute take is far more valuable than spending two hours working on a five-minute take and settling for mediocrity in doing so.

Regarding work ethic, are you committed to a daily practice regimen, a minimum of two hours outside of class, even more if possible?  This takes enormous self-discipline, especially on weekends and holidays.  Making excuses can be a slippery slope.   Don’t allow yourself to skip or shorten your practice sessions.  If anything, you should be doing all you can to increase your practice time.

Lastly, evaluate your mental preparation.  Are you practicing without interruptions or distractions?  Are your electronic devices turned off and put out of reach?  Are you in the zone when you practice, giving it everything you’ve got?  It takes time to develop the mental stamina needed to concentrate for the interminable five-minute testing takes.

Despite your setbacks, try to stay positive.  Keep at it.  Don’t look too far ahead; you’ll  get overwhelmed.  Just concentrate on gaining a couple words per minute a week, and eventually you will get there.  You will drop many words and fail many tests along the way, but one day you will “be like MJ” and find sweet victory.

STEP IT UP

I was waiting in line last Sunday ordering a bagel.  The three people behind the counter were going about their duties, tending to each custom order.  As more people entered the shop and joined the ever-growing line, the staff seemed unfazed, going about their business at their usual pace.  Apparently they saw no need to speed things up to accommodate the sudden rush of business.

Can you imagine, in your role as a court reporter, operating at only one speed:   slow? Can you envision the words coming at you in quick succession, piling up one after the other, but, no worries, you keep moseying along at a snail’s pace?  Needless to say, as court reporters we have no choice but to step it up and shift into a higher gear.

Sometimes the pace at a deposition is steady, but many times it is not.  Testimony can come at you in fits and starts; it can wax and wane.  Getting into a rhythm can be difficult on days like these.  Things may be quiet speedwise, and then all of a sudden someone objects and they’re off to the races.  It is your job to adjust to whatever the speed may be:  If the pace is slow, you have to stay on your toes for the inevitable and unpredictable uptick.  If the speed is fast, you have to hang on until things slow down enough for you to catch your breath.  The more speed you have in the bank, the more adept you will be to take on whatever comes your way.

This brings to mind an assignment I shared with a fabulous colleague, Jane Williamson, RMR, CRR, on a daily copy years ago.  She would write; I would edit, sitting in the same room.  I noticed that whenever things got contentious and the pace picked up, she literally dropped her head and went into high-speed mode.  It scared me at first — I thought she had fainted! — but I noticed that she did this multiple times throughout the day.  It was such a strong visual manifestation of her bearing down, going into a deeper level of concentration, and ramping up her speed.  I mentioned this to her afterwards, and she was unaware that she was even doing this!

Of course you may not physically react as she does, but you do have to switch gears mentally to be able to dig deep and perform at a higher level.  Your current practice routine is a good indicator of how you will fare in challenging situations like this.  If you do your best to hang on even when it seems impossible, you will have a better chance of success.  This is the mindset you need to be able to perform optimally.  Contrast this with a more lackadaisical approach to your practice sessions, and I think the results will become obvious.  A complacent mindset will generate inferior outcomes.  Put another way, you will not be able to go into full-speed mode when needed if you do not train yourself to do so while in school.

Unfortunately, reporters cannot be like the one-speed-fits-all workers at the bagel shop without suffering serious consequences.  When called upon, there is no option but to step it up and deliver.