Everyone talks at a different speed, with many factors contributing to their speaking pace. Factors such as occupation, subject matter and geographic area where one is born and raised. Most people speak at a speed from 110 to 200 words per minute (wpm), depending on these influences, with the 150-160 range being an optimal rate for conversation. Now throw in another factor, the speaker’s emotional state, and you’re nearing a 200 wpm rate (only auctioneers and other “fast talkers” are in the 250 to 400 wpm range).
Order in the Court
Because emotions can be a big part of a person’s speaking speed, and court is a place where some will indeed be emotional, it is imperative that those tasked with capturing courtroom discussions word-for-word not only keep up, but stay ahead. Court reporters are the ones on which attorneys, judges and others rely on for complete and accurate records of all judicial proceedings. To do so, these reporters need to be able to stenotype at speeds of about 225 wpm. And you thought typing at 100 wpm was fast – and it is, on a typical keyboard.
The focus on speed in this field is such that organizations in the U.S. and worldwide host regional, national and international speed contests to encourage participants to prove their abilities and promote the industry. The international contest draws about 1,500 contestants from around the world and boasts speeds of 280 wpm by some winners. Accuracy is also measured in the final scores.
Tools of the Trade
There are more than 100 schools for court reporting in the U.S. They focus on teaching students a type of machine shorthand that spells words phonetically, by how words sound, rather than by correct spelling letter for letter. Students use special machines, or stenotypes, to capture speech, and unique software (computer-aided transcription or CAT) to transcribe it to a correctly spelled documentation of the event. Once a student has mastered the stenotype and its unique brand of shorthand, they then work to build speed and accuracy. In many states, students must pass exams on speed (at least 225 wpm), accuracy and written knowledge as well.
Need for Speed
The need for speed becomes more apparent when you consider its applications: Attorneys, judges and trial participants have information literally at their fingertips and can search the transcripts in real time for specific information and names and remind themselves of testimony. This is made possible with CAT technology, which converts the reporter’s typing into text that can then be corrected, researched, emailed and stored electronically. This method of court reporting has other applications as well. Reporters can supply immediate transcripts in a process known as “real-time,” which converts notes to text which can then be displayed on a bigger screen for large groups or used to benefit the hard-of-hearing or deaf.
Student Character Traits
Speed isn’t everything, however. To perform well at this job, court reporting schools suggest that students possess a calm, disciplined demeanor and the same level of intellect as a typical college student. Reporting students will study college-level topics such as civil and criminal law, languages, legal terms, grammar and more. Meeting deadlines is an important part of this position, as well as being able to excel under pressure and focus for long stretches of time. With technology constantly changing, students should also be computer literate and open to changes and have good language skills.
Court reporting has been around as long as the courts themselves, due to a common need to record legal proceedings. With an increasing need for more court reporters, today’s students can look forward to a steady career, one they share with the likes of writer Charles Dickens and actor Harvey Keitel, who worked as court reporters in their early careers.