“YouTube’s auto captions? Don’t make me laugh!” Meet Claire Hill, expert stenographer!

Posted on April 17, 2013

I first worked with Claire Hill when she provided speech-to-text for live comedy at Soho Theatre. I was amazed at how quickly and accurately the words that the comedians spoke appeared on screen. Put it this way, if Claire was providing live subtitles on TV on a constant basis, we wouldn’t have nearly as many mistakes to complain about! She’s a good egg so I thought it was about time we featured her in these pages to find out just how stenography works, and how she got into it…

How did you first get into stenography?

After finishing my music degree in 1994, and deciding further double bass study wasn’t for me, I taught myself to type and started looking for jobs using that skill.

I answered an advert in The Guardian from what is now Merrill Legal Solutions, they required a degree and the ability to type 60 words per minute typing, plus passing a grammar test. After two years of training I started writing realtime in court, and I’ve been doing speech-to-text work since 2005.

Could you explain how it works?

On the machine you press more than one key at once, to make a syllable, word or phrase in one stroke. You work very closely with your software to define short forms for common words, and names and speakers particular to each job.

Claire Hill photoWhat is the difference between stenography and the other forms of text-based live access?

There’s very little difference between stenography and palantype, other than the design of the keyboard. Electronic notetaking has its role – when the client wants a summary rather than verbatim. Revoicing or respeaking, from what I’ve seen, isn’t accurate enough yet for verbatim work. And as for YouTube’s auto captions – don’t make me laugh!

How fast can you type?

I can type about 80 words per minute, and steno about 230 words per minute.

What’s your favourite type of work (comedy, theatre, telly?)

My favourite kinds of work at the moment are what I call cultural STT, talks in museums and galleries or post-show discussions in theatres, and comedy; and then international arbitrations, providing realtime and daily transcripts, mostly in Europe. They’re two ends of the spectrum, but both challenging and interesting.

We worked together at Soho theatre and your level of accuracy was unbelievable. Do you go into ‘the zone’ when typing?

Thank you! Yes, when working at speed there definitely is a zone I go into. Sometimes I feel quite disassociated from my hands, like they’re writing on their own. There’s so much to think about, checking my short-form notes, thinking about what might be coming next, that it’s engrossing and time at work goes by very quickly!

What’s coming up for you?

In April I am providing subtitles for Stagetext talks at Sadler’s Wells, the National Gallery, the Hunterian Museum and the British Museum – the details are all on the Stagetext website at www.stagetext.org/whats-on. Interspersed with trips to Rome, Vienna and Paris for arbitrations, it’s going to be a fun few months!

Interview by Charlie Swinbourne

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