Add speed and accuracy to the magic of your convention experience

Contestants for the 2014 Realtime Contest before the contest begins. Many look congenial. They sit in rows with their laptops and steno machines in front of them. In the back are about a dozen observers.

Whether you are a speed and accuracy junkie or just someone who loves to watch your peers perform at their highest possible levels, make plans to compete in or attend the 2017 National Speed and Realtime Contests being held at the NCRA Convention & Expo happening in Las Vegas, Nev.

Registration for both contests is at the halfway mark, and the deadline is drawing near. The Speed Contest is set to take place on Wednesday, Aug. 9, with the Realtime Contest happening on Thursday, Aug. 10. Both events will take place at the NCRA Convention & Expo host hotel Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino.

NCRA’s National Speed Contest first debuted at the 1909 convention in Lake George, N.Y., pitting Pitman and Gregg pen writers against one another. Today’s contestants continue to fight for top speeds and accuracy rates but on shorthand machines. Contestants face three, five-minute tests of live dictation that includes literary at 220 wpm, legal opinion at 230 wpm, and testimony at 280 wpm. Once done, contestants have 90 minutes to transcribe what they wrote. The transcripts are then graded for accuracy and combined with speed times to determine who makes it to the winner’s circle.

With the advent of realtime software, NCRA introduced the National Realtime Contest in 1999 to showcase members’ instantaneous speech-to-text skills. Just as challenging as the Speed Contest, contestants face two five-minute dictations: one of straight matter at 200 wpm and another of two-voice dictation at 225 wpm. Tests are submitted for grading immediately upon completion of the contests, and contestants must qualify with an accuracy rate of 95 percent or better to have a shot at the top spots.

Both contests offer challenging and difficult tests of skill and endurance. And each year, both veterans and first-timers show up to participate, as do those who just want to observe and be inspired. The JCR Weekly reached out to two members, a veteran participant and an observer, to find out more about what draws court reporters and captioners to the contests.

According to Ed Varallo, FAPR, RMR, CRR, a freelance reporter from Boston, Mass., competing is a way for him to challenge himself. Varallo won the speed contest in 1974, in 1975 (where he scored a perfect score in the 280 wpm testimony leg), and in 1976, and then returned to win again in 1986, in 1996, and in 2006 after having retired from competing for 10 years.

“The men and women who put their skills on the line and enter the National Speed Contest or Realtime Contest are setting an example for all of us. They’re showing us what the most skillful practitioners of our art can do. And I find that inspiring. Makes me want to be the best reporter I can be,” Varallo said.

“If you don’t enter the contest, come watch it. You’ll be inspired. It’s exciting to watch fingers fly as the words pour forth at astronomical speeds! I’ve entered state and national contests and won six national contests. What motivates me is always the same thing: I want to challenge myself the way these other reporters are challenging themselves. Interestingly, when you compete, you’re competing with yourself. It doesn’t feel like you’re competing with the other contestants in the room,” he said.

“Sure, each of us is scored and ranked against all other contestants, but for me, I was happy when I performed well. If I won, well, that’s great, and I’d like to win again. But if I performed well, got a good score, and somebody beat me, I might be disappointed — but I wouldn’t feel defeated because I knew I gave it my best shot. When you compete in a high-speed contest, and transcribe your paper, and especially if you’re happy with your performance, it’s exhilarating! It makes you want to do it again! And, of course, it keeps your writing skills in tip-top shape so that you can be the best reporter you’re capable of, every day. And that’s what a true professional aims to do every day,” he added.

Mike Hensley, RPR, is a freelance court reporter from Evanston, Ill., and a member of NCRA’s New Professionals Committee. At the 2016 NCRA Convention & Expo in Chicago, Ill., Hensley had the opportunity to watch the Realtime Contest. He said watching it gave him the chance to be exposed to new approaches and methods to attain high-speed writing while watching the best of the best in the industry live in action.

“I was absolutely thrilled and energized just to be in the room, even as a spectator. I was inspired to set goals for myself to be able to join in the fun at my earliest opportunity. I think there’s always something new to observe from the contestants. Every competition is different. Just like our jobs, each session brings a new experience. The competition is so tight; it’s never certain who exactly is going to win top honors,” Hensley said.

“Before observing the contest, it seemed like such a lofty goal. After observing it in person, I gained the feeling that speed contests were definitely something that I could work towards in my personal development. I haven’t competed yet. Right now, I’m working on attaining the necessary certifications in order to be eligible,” he said.

“Several of my mentors are speed contestants. And there are many other contestants who graciously encourage and inspire others to be the best they can be in the profession. Competition in this arena is fun! The participants eagerly welcome new participants,” he added.

According to Hensley, keeping an eye on speed contests offers many ideas for becoming better as a reporter. Even if you don’t compete, you can learn ways to write shorter, faster, and cleaner, he noted. “You don’t have to be able to write at competition speeds in order to make your own skill set stronger and sharper. Seeing the contest live helps to demystify perceptions about the event and make it more accessible. If you have even the slightest interest, I highly recommend you watch the next contest that you can,” said Hensley.

He also encourages students to make the effort to watch the contests as spectators and use the experience as another opportunity to learn from those who are experienced in the profession.

“The Speed Contest participants are arguably some of the best in the field. Who wouldn’t want to watch the best of the best? Speed contests are also extremely motivating for those who have the competitive spirit. It’s the same as watching Olympic athletes. Not only do you see the results of hard work, but you also get an idea of the training and dedication it takes to reach that level of excellence.”

Are you up for the challenge? Register now to participate in the Speed or Realtime Contests when you register for the 2017 NCRA Convention and Expo at NCRA.org/convention.

For more inspiration, be sure to read “Five minutes with Speed Champ Jeff Weigl” and “Five minutes with Realtime Champ Dee Boenau.” For those competing or considering to compete, be sure to read “Top 11 tips from Speed and Realtime Contests graders,” written by Russell Page and Pat Miller, CRI, CPE, veteran members of NCRA’s Contest Committee and long-term contest graders.

Don’t miss all the perks of early registration. Book a room at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino for the opportunity to win — NCRA is offering prizes to those staying in the discounted room block at Planet Hollywood, including a refund of your entire convention registration and a Kindle Fire tablet to those who additionally download the app. Special room rates disappear July 4.

Top 11 tips from Speed and Realtime Contests graders

contestsBy Russell Page and Pat Miller

Some things do not change from steno school, when grading students who are striving for skill to the grading of papers of the skilled reporters who are striving for new heights of speed and accuracy in the Speed and Realtime Contests. For a different perspective, we thought that as people who review the contest papers, we could share the errors we saw. So many great writers participate in the contests, and little things can make a big difference. Even if you are not planning to compete in a state or national contest, we hope that these tips can help you.

  1. Our first piece of advice is the one we wish all contestants would take to heart: Have fun. Even though your goal in challenging yourself through steno contests may be to support a serious or professional outcome, the participation in preparing for and taking contests with your peers, where each contestant is in a game against oneself, should at the very least to be fun. And maybe at the very most, too.
  2. Second big reveal: Prepare the procedures for setting up, writing, and turning in the contest papers. Go through the steps so often that you have no need to doubt yourself. Make a list of what you use and check it off item by item when packing for travel to the convention. If you are not certain that some item, such as a surge protector, will be provided, pack one.

Feel confident that you have with you what you need to succeed, regardless of where you place, from your listening skills and focus to your up-to-date steno skills to all the necessary equipment on hand.

  1. Write with intent. Call it practice if you wish. Writing with intent means that you are writing steno in a way that maximizes your chances of winning a contest, which may simply be upping your game from the last challenge or may take you all the way to the medal round. Write a section and then play the audio to check your translation but also check your steno. What outlines may be sabotaging your speed or realtime? We know what comes up most often. See tip Five.
  2. Write using the guidelines as your guides. Know the contests rules and “errors or allowed” prep sheets front to back and practice with those as your guide. If you can translate in all caps for Realtime, thereby not having any capitalization errors, practice using all-caps translation so that you can give yourself a grading advantage right from the get-go. Graders are not looking for saleable transcripts. They are looking for best possible, advanced skills translation.
  3. Five discloses the biggest error: That is that. That shows up as a pronoun in two categories of pronoun use, as a conjunction, as an adjective, and as an adverb. It’s a big deal. It matters in contests in ways that it may not matter even in verbatim writing on the job. When you are working in Tip 3, writing with intent, practice listening for “that” and then note when you miss it as you read back to assess your take. Are there patterns to when you hear and stroke it correctly and to when you miss it? If you find patterns that you can change to improve your grade, know that it will improve your work output as well. A two-fer. A bonus.
  4. Don’t get fancy unless practice fancy. If you put in an open quote but not a close quote, points will be deducted even if quotes were not necessary in that instance. This is true for comma pairs. The grading guidelines are really generous about the need or lack thereof for commas. If you put a comma in that requires a partner and you miss the partner, you might begin to rack up the errors. As with “that,” commas are everywhere.
  5. Think of contests as a travel job for another reporting agency. You will receive formatting guidelines and preview material so that you represent the agency seamlessly and consistently with the work of the agency’s regular pool of writers. If you want the job, you follow their guide sheets. If you want to pass grading, you have to work with the guidelines at hand.
  6. When you are writing realtime contests, consider not writing what you don’t know will translate. An untran of three strokes is three errors at least. One missed word is one error. If you are going to try to write a word, have the skill necessary to quickly delete what didn’t translate and move on.
  7. When you are transcribing speed contests, don’t be in a hurry. Few contestants spend even half the time allowed per leg on any one leg. We are not remarking on contestants who “know” they didn’t pass but are transcribing “just to see” how they did. These are contestants who pass at 95 percent and above but who miss the simplest things because they didn’t just sit with each leg as if it was going to be a saleable transcript. If you don’t need the full ninety minutes per leg, great. But please do not rush and regret. The 280 Testimony is 1,400 words. Even if it takes 45 minutes to complete the transcription, that leaves 45 minutes to review, to perhaps read it backwards to catch misspellings and errors in consistency.
  8. There is no cell phones and no Internet use during the contest. Everyone who attends either of NCRA’s Speed and Realtime Contests is asked to turn off their cell phones and leave it outside the room. If you cannot be untethered during the contest due to life’s circumstances, it is best to sit out these events. In addition, there is no cell phone use and no Internet use during transcription. It’s you against you, no additional assists. Writer with writer, mano a keyboard, you versus the Speed of the Spoken Word. But remember tip #1 – this should be fun. Mechanical and technical interruptions that break the focus of the contestants ruin the pure joy of writing with intent. Intent to challenge. Intent to win. Turn them off and turn them in and then tune in to your inner steno writing warrior.
  9. Graders do not want to find errors. It is such a thrill to grade for pages before an error sneaks in. We gasp, we groan, we look for every opportunity to give back points where we can within the guidelines. We are in awe and humbled each year by the level of enthusiasm, commitment, and skill of all of the contestants who sign up and show up, who know that you can’t win if you don’t play.

Russell Page and Pat Miller, CRI, CPE, are Contests Committee members and have participated in the grading process for years.

Jeff Weigl new speed champ; Dee Boenau wins realtime

Jeffrey Weigl, RMR, CRR, CRC, from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, won the 2016 Speed Contest, held on Aug. 3, during the 2016 NCRA Convention & Expo in Chicago. Weigl turned in a 220 Literary with six errors, a 230 Legal Opinion with 26 errors, and a 280 Q&A with 20 errors to earn the crown. In second place overall was Melanie Humphrey-Sonntag, RDR, CRR, CRC, of St. Charles, Ill., and in third was Karen Tyler, RDR, CRR, CRC, of Shreveport, La.

Dee Boenau, RDR, CRR, CRC, of Sarasota, Fla., took top honors in the Realtime Contest, the second time she has earned the title. Boenau’s 200 Literary leg had only four errors and the 225 testimony had seven. Ron Cook, RDR, CRR, CRC, of Seattle, Wash., took second place overall in the competition. Amanda Maze, RMR, CRR, CRC, of Brighton, Colo., placed in third for the Realtime Contest.

The Speed Contest consists of three legs: literary at 220 wpm, legal opinion at 230 wpm, and testimony at 280 wpm. Contestants have a total of 90 minutes per leg for transcription. The Realtime Contest consists of two legs: literary at 200 wpm and testimony at 225 wpm. Contestants must turn in an ASCII file immediately following the end of dictation. In both contests, contestants must receive 95 percent accuracy to qualify; accuracy also determines the winners.

Catching up with the Realtime Contest winner

DougDoug Zweizig, RDR, CRR, a federal official court reporter for the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, in Baltimore, won the 2015 Realtime Contest in New York, N.Y. It’s his second time as NCRA Realtime Champion. The JCR Weekly caught up with him back on the job to find out a little more about his practice methods and what it’s like to be a part of the competitions.

What appealed to you about competing in the speed or realtime contest?

2005 was the year of my very first NCRA convention. I figured I’d enter the Realtime Contest. I never thought I could compete with anyone. Lo and behold, I won third place. I had a suspicion that I did well and was very nervous about the awards luncheon, so I didn’t go and stayed in my room. Big mistake – one I vowed never to make again, despite my feelings on how well I did or didn’t do. Lisa Feissner, from my home state of Pennsylvania, tracked me down in my room and made me get downstairs right away! I still apologize to Teri Gaudet for not being there on time to this day.

How did you train for this competition?

To be honest, I didn’t have time, unless you count all my time in court. The Tuesday night practice session went unusually well for me. It’s normally awful. [Ed. Note: Traditionally, the Speed and Realtime Contestants have been invited to a practice session on the Tuesday before the convention. It gives both the contestants and the dictators a chance to get used to the venue and troubleshoot any problems before the Speed Contest begins on Wednesday.]

You compete in the Realtime Contest pretty frequently. Was there anything you did differently this time?

I wasn’t pleased with my performance last year, so basically I just had to be in the zone and calm down. I don’t like to chitchat too much before, which is difficult for me since I’m always running my mouth. That’s part of staying in the zone for me. After the dictation is over, all bets are off, and my mouth is running like always.

Were you surprised that you won, or did you have a good feeling about the contest as you were writing?

Literary – whether in speed or realtime – has always been my strongest, so I had a very good feeling about that. The Q&A, however, was extremely challenging, to say the least. Since it has to be written in mixed case, things that are not capped but should be are marked as errors. I used my cap stroke a total of 13 times in that file. They got tricky with this one, which is a good thing. They gave us a word list ahead of time but didn’t tell us which take it applied to. I think they all applied to the Q&A. “Great Northern Airlines,” I made up about five different briefs for that. But then they’d say “Great Northern,” which is where my cap stroke came in. Same with “Southeast Jet Airlines” suddenly becoming “Southeast.” It kept me on my toes, that’s for sure! I think it helped that I’ve taken several airplane crash trials, so I had some good briefs. And as for being surprised, I knew I did well, but you can never gauge how well someone else did.

How does this win compare to your Realtime Championship in 2006?

I remember the literary in 2006 being really good with a three-way tie. The Q&A that year was very challenging as well. I remember something about veterinary medicine and anaphylactic shock. I had quite a number of errors on that take. 2006 was surreal. I remember my teacher, Cathy Logan, was waiting for me off stage after she got wind that I might win. That was pretty awesome to see her right away. It was one of the best moments of my life.

Winning this year was particularly emotional for me. I lost my mother suddenly last year. The past year and a half has had more ups and downs than I’ve ever had in life, including moving states for a new job that I love. I wanted to be able to call my mom to tell her, of course, as anyone would, but I do feel she was with me in spirit. So if anyone wondered why I was so emotional, that’s why. This year was made very special as well because my friend and classmate Marla (Lahr) Vargas was there to see me win. She’s always been a big cheerleader.

You’ve competed in both the Speed and Realtime Contests at a national level. Do you practice for or think about them differently, or do you use the same techniques for both?

I never thought I could compete in the Speed Contest as realtime is my thing. I was shocked to place third overall in 2012 in both contests, but especially the speed. I never thought I’d be able to switch gears and had never tried until 2012. With realtime, I need to write as perfectly as I possibly can, including punctuation. With speed, it’s a matter of getting it down. Funny how I can still read my notes when transcribing, such as having a split stroke or a stack. It’s fun figuring it out and getting a big smile on my face when I do. I technically qualified in the speed Q&A in 2014, but I had some drops. I beat myself up about that for a long time, but I said to myself that I was going to nail it this year, and I did. My arms started to turn to rubber in the middle of it, but I held on. I had five errors, so I’m very happy with that.

NCRA 2015 Convention & Expo kicks off in New York City

A record number court reporters, captioners, and legal videographers helped kick off the 2015 NCRA Convention & Expo this morning, the highest number of registrants in four years. Nearly 1,200 are registered for the event. The first day includes day-long pre-convention intensive CAT vendor workshops hosted by Advantage Software/Eclipse and Stenograph, the Association’s Annual Business Meeting, and the first day of the Realtime Systems Administrator Workshop.

It also marked the first day of the Certified Realtime Captioner three-day workshop. This workshop is required to earn the new certification that combines the educational training of the Certified Broadcast Captioner and the Certified CART Provider certifications. NCRA members who currently hold the CBC and the CCP certifications will automatically become CRCs as of Jan. 1, 2016. Participants in the CRC Workshop will have the opportunity to take the written knowledge portion of the CRC test.

Other highlights for day one of the convention include the National Realtime Competition, the National Committee of State Associations Meeting, the Only New Once Reception, and the Opening Reception in the Expo Hall.

Court reporting champ has great hands and ‘nerves of steel’

The ABA Law Journal Now posted an article online on Aug. 20 showcasing NCRA member Jo Ann Bryce, RMR, CRR, who won both NCRA’s National Realtime and Speed contests earlier this month. The article cites the recent Wall Street Journal article that featured the competition.

Read more.

‘Michael Jordan’ of court reporting suffers upset defeat

An Aug. 20 post on The Wall Street Journal Law Blog, which covers the legal arena’s hot cases, emerging trends, and big personalities, focuses on the recent Wall Street Journal article that featured NCRA’s 2014 National Realtime and Speed Competitions held at this year’s convention in San Francisco.

The blog’s lead writer, Jacob Gershman, notes that while Jo Ann Bryce, RMR, CRR, didn’t win any medals in Sochi, in the Olympics of court reporting, she’s a champion, having swept both the realtime and the speed competitions, upsetting the heavy favorite Mark Kislingbury, RDR, CRR.

Read more.

Fingers fly at court-reporting championships

An Aug. 19 article in The Wall Street Journal covered the National Speed and Realtime Contests at the 2014 Convention & Expo, held July 31- Aug. 3 in San Francisco. The article compares the stenographic styles of Mark Kislingbury, RDR, CRR, who is famous for his use of briefs, and Jo Ann Bryce, RMR, CRR, who uses a more traditional method. Bryce ultimately won all five legs of each contest. “I am still in shock,” says Bryce in the article. “I know I did it—it just sort of seems surreal.”

The article, which includes a video with interviews from contestants, also discusses the rising demand for court reporters, as well as the importance of grammar to reporting, citing Teri Gaudet’s joke if next year’s committee members should wear shirts that say “Does anal-retentive have a hyphen?”

Read more.