Rediscovering the Art of Dictation on Your iPhone

dicta machine

After months of nagtext messages from my cell carrier, all promoting  my available hardware upgrades, I finally made the move several weeks ago and switched to a sparkling new iPhone 5s.

I wasn’t much interested in the new (for me) Siri functions, to be honest. I had long ago lived through my friend’ eager demonstrations of Siri’s amusing ability to handle their obscene test questions with digital grace. There was little novelty left.

Little did I realize that the technologies associated with Siri would ultimately be a pathway for my rediscovery of the long-lost art of dictation.

Back in “the day” when I first started practicing law, most lawyers dictated their written work. Old-fashioned dicta machines had been rather large and clunky appliances, but by the time of my call, battery driven machines equipped with micro-cassette tapes were the norm. They were a bit smaller than the current iPhone, but twice as heavy.

Typical workflow involved lawyers dictating on client matters, and then handing off the tapes to our assistants.  They would transcribe these tapes on their electric typewriters/early generation DOS computers, and when the tape was done, return completed, typed drafts to the dictating lawyer for review.

Since revisions to these drafts mostly involved either messy, liquid white-out solutions or re-typing of entire documents, it was in the dictating lawyers’ (and assistants’) interests to get it right the first time.  With practice, we mostly  did.

I remember well, those Sunday afternoons I spent in my early offices, nearly straddling my filing cabinet  as I rifled from file to file to file, dictating updates, reports, follow-ups, and even pleadings on each and every active matter.

As I completed dictating on a matter, I would place its paper file atop an ever-growing pile, which would be left for my assistant when all dictation was done, with tape perched on top (like a little cassette crown).

I’d feel a nearly devious sense of satisfaction, anticipating the looks on my assistants’ faces as they encountered these formidable Monday morning piles, knowing they’d be thinking, “I’m never going to get through all this stuff.”

Back then, that felt like productivity.

I tell this long tale of the past, knowing that over time, with the advent of desktops, laptops, notebooks, smartphones, and tablets, we lawyers were blessed with very effective tools to do our own typing, and little by little, dictation fell out of fashion, in my practice at least.

My new iPhone has changed all that.

What started with the rather annoying problem of a narrower keyboard that kept me clunkily hitting the microphone button in error (as I searched in vain for commas and semicolons), evolved into a re-discovery of the art of dictation, and a parallel reawakening as to just how efficient and effective a workflow tool it can be.

As you will see in the attached video, the iPhone makes it all so easy. Simply click on the microphone icon on the bottom of your keyboard, speak away, and when you’re done, the iPhone will miraculously transcribe it all before your very eyes.

(In case you’re wondering, I used my old iPhone to make the video of my new iPhone).

Dictating well is a discipline, and probably will take some practice. But I think you will see that as you master dictation, the words will flow more easily and coherently. Beyond that, ideas and insights will emerge as you literally ‘think aloud.”

Dictation may well be anathema to those who prefer a cut and paste world of fill-in-the-blanks and templates. I like those too, but frankly find that when I dictate emails and more complex documents, both the quality of my work and the detail I am able to include are superior.

Perhaps that’s because I speak more quickly than I type, and it’s simply faster and easier to dictate.

But I also find that dictation engages a different form of mental activity than typing. It’s more like free-flowing conversation or oral argument, as opposed to the distracting mechanical concentration that is necessary for typing on a keyboard, especially a tiny, mobile keyboard.

In any event, I’ve once again started to dictate in my practice. I’ve been using my iPhone to dictate emails, reporting letters and memos, in particular.

And the good news is there is no danger to the assistants in my office that the renewal of my affections with dictation will ever again leave them with insurmountable, Monday morning towers of files, tapes on top, and a full week’s worth of rote work awaiting.

The iPhone handles all that, instantly, and they remain freed up to do far more serious tasks that add real value to our collaborations.

So Today’s Tip is…

Use your iPhone to rediscover the joys of dictation.

It may make your life easier and your work better.  It may even help you get to inbox zero (and inbox hero).

– Garry J. Wise, Toronto (@wiselaw on Twitter)

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