The Successful Captioner
By Amy Bowlen
Someone likely to succeed as a realtime captioner does not have a completely different set of characteristics or qualities from someone likely to succeed as a reporter working in any other environment. For that matter, the characteristics present in a successful student are probably the same as those of a successful judicial reporter, CART provider or realtime captioner.
When reporters congregate, we see in each other that stereotypical character set of the court reporter mold - attention to detail, work ethic, English and grammar skills, persistence, steno skills, well organized, perfectionism. Although those characteristics were probably present, to some degree, from the beginning and got us through that first hurdle - school - they seem to intensify and become more dominant as we progress through our career.
We can see some of those shared characteristics in most reporters, but the presence and intensity of those characteristics may be more important when trying to identify someone as well suited for the field of realtime captioning. That heightened level of importance is rooted in two areas: the nature of the end product and the environment in which it is produced.
For realtime captioners, the first product is the final product or the "official record." Initially, that may not seem significant, but it differentiates captioners from their judicial counterparts. That's not to suggest the overall job of a realtime captioner is more important or more difficult than the job of a judicial reporter, but, rather, the emphasis is on different aspects of the job.
Realtime captioners work in an environment where the focus is on their writing skills and their initial translation. They don't have the opportunity to review, fix or clarify their work before it reaches the end user. That changes everything! The finality of the translation, that specific element of the captioner's job, takes the skill requirements, word knowledge, attention to detail and "court reporter perfectionism" to a different level.
The live factor of captioning is unforgiving. When a captioner sends a word out there, he or she can't get it back! With today's technology, those words are far reaching. Some television programs are broadcast internationally, the captions along with them. Some captions (unedited) enjoy a second life on the broadcaster's Web site or in a digital file in the client's archives to be used at their discretion. Although applications for the end use of captions are changing, the origin of the captions is the same - live from the fingertips of the realtime captioner!
If that's not enough pressure, today's captioners are more likely to be working from their home office than from their employer's corporate facility. At home ... alone ... far from the client, far from the company they work for, far from any technical support, and far from the moral support and interaction of co-workers that would help to make the first three items tolerable.
Obviously, not everyone can work under those "live ... and alone" circumstances, and for those who can't, there are companies that hire on-site captioners. Whether working on-site at a corporate facility or from a remote site, the ranks of realtime captioners are increasing. To be more than just a number in the ranks - to be a highly skilled captioner - we come full circle to the characteristics or attributes that separate the best from the rest.
When I think about the preeminent realtime captioners in the industry and the quality of work they consistently produce, despite the circumstances, I recognize a list of attributes they all share. Each individual attribute, though impressive, does not an excellent captioner make. Possessing all of these attributes makes them unique. It's their success quotient.
1. Skills and Smarts
Two words, but one attribute. They go hand in hand as if they are a single word. Skills and smarts is the first prerequisite of the job. The accuracy of the captions is reliant on a combination of the captioner's word knowledge and skills on the steno machine. The captioner has to recognize the word being said, and then needs to be able to stroke it correctly. With accuracy and verbatim as the captioner's primary goals, they need their skills and smarts every day. And with the diversity of topics they encounter, they're never really done developing either one.
Skills and smarts is more than writing the correct words. It extends to the overall presentation of the captions - comprehending all of the aspects involved in captioning a show, from blanking captions off the screen properly to transitioning seamlessly between live realtime and prescripted text.
2. Self-Analytic and Persistent
No realtime captioner finishes his or her first assignment without room for improvement ... or their 50th or 100th assignment. Recognizing that fact and constantly striving to improve is the foundation of a great captioner. Highly skilled captioners have made their share of mistakes, but they've learned from each and every one. They critique their captions, not through their own court reporter eyes, but through the unbiased eyes of the viewers - reading the words on the screen and making no excuses. No rationalizing: "It's only the little words that are missing," "Oh, that's stacking," "Oops, that's a phrase I haven't gotten rid of yet" or "I had no prep material." The captioner is responsible for writing the words as spoken - or spelling the words as spoken - and incorporating the necessary punctuation to convey the intended message of the speaker.
Conscientious captioners analyze their mistakes, identify their weaknesses and are persistent in their efforts to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. Just as our captioning technology and skills have become more sophisticated and discriminating, so have caption viewers. They have grown beyond being thankful for anything they can get. Caption viewers rely on accurate and correct information as do any other television viewers.
3. Mental and Technical Acuity
The captioners' responsibility goes beyond the accuracy of the captions. They are responsible for the actual transmission of their captions; that is, they write on their machines and simultaneously monitor their equipment to be sure that the captions are making it further than their computer screen.
As mentioned, more captioners are working from their home office than from the company office. With that increased independence and flexibility comes increased responsibility. Working independently requires focus and concentration on the entire process. Captioners working from a remote site need to constantly be aware of the status of their equipment as well as the connectivity between their equipment and the equipment receiving the data. They need complete comprehension of the functionality of their software as well as the configuration of their hardware to be able to troubleshoot and remedy technical difficulties as they arise.
4. Organizational and Planning Skills
Captioning assignments go around the clock - early morning, late night, weekends and holidays. To strike a balance between work life and personal life, yet drawing a definitive line between the two, captioners need a well-planned schedule. Assignment times change. Organizational skills are necessary for tracking times and dates of assignments. Whether the communications regarding assignments come via e-mail or voice mail, a system for checking them frequently and recording the information is crucial.
Organization and planning go beyond accepting and tracking captioning assignments. There is usually technical information, formatting information and checklists to be kept at the ready. There may be ancillary tasks or procedures associated with the assignments. For example, tracking technical difficulties, file transfer and, of course, billing for independent contractors or time sheets for employees. Those ancillary duties are the responsibility of the captioner, and if left incomplete or lost in the shuffle, their job security may be in jeopardy.
The strength or weakness of these attributes plays a role in the success of the individual captioner and ultimately the success of the employer. The lack of technical acuity can result in an unnecessary loss of captions to air. A weakness in skills and smarts can result in a low accuracy level. The lack of organizational and planning skills can result in a missed program. Any of those incidents can result in the loss of a client for the captioning company, and when that company loses a client, the effects trickle down to all of the other captioners who are employed or work as an independent contractor for that captioning company.
About the Author
Amy Bowlen, RDR, CRR, from Canonsburg, Pa., is manager of realtime captioners at VITAC.