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The ‘Sport’ of Stenography!

The ‘Sport’ of Stenography!

Carmel Taylor was a stenographer and personal assistant prior to taking a role of teaching Business Studies. She maintains her passion for shorthand and has many international connections with people who share her interest. Carmel is a Fellow of the Commercial Education Society of Australia.

The definition of ‘Sport’ in the Cambridge Dictionary is: “a game, competition or activity needing physical effort and skill that is played or done according to rules, for enjoyment and/or as a job” – how aptly this describes shorthand writing, or stenography.  Let me tell you why – shorthand writing is competitive, requires adhering to rules, concentration, precision and physical endurance, and is usually a hobby or to assist work.

The ‘activity’ of shorthand writing, being able to write at speed, lends itself naturally to competitions – competitions to acquire one’s own personal best or to compete against others.

For many years The Commercial Education Society of Australia conducted speed examinations for individuals to become accredited which assisted them to ‘qualify’ for professional positions or for the continued achievement of their own PB.

European stenography associations offer opportunities to stenographers, from beginners to veterans, to compete in annual speed competitions in their much-loved hobby. One such competition is the German Seniors Championship.

Image: Carmel Taylor

In sporting events like the Commonwealth Games, participants are required to ‘try out’ or quality before being granted a place in the next level of expertise. This concept of ‘qualifying’ is also common in the history of writing shorthand. For an example of where stenographers vied to become among the elite in Australia, we look at court reporters. The Evidence Act for Licensing Shorthand Writers ensured that those who qualified for the licence to work in courts or parliament were the cream of the crop. Opportunities arose several times a year for stenos to sit these rigorous exams, which often also required proficiency in legal jargon and a broad general knowledge. A day of testing included writing a ten-minute session of dictation at 150 words per minute, before reading back the 1500 words verbatim to the examiners.  Nerves contributed to a significant failure rate. Those who were successful were among the doyens of the profession, who were often capable of writing in excess of 240 words per minute.

Internationally, speed championships gave competitors the opportunity to gain worldwide notoriety in the field. In USA the Annual Boston Speed Contest was considered so prestigious that some contestants came from Europe. In 1907 Mr Godfrey of London travelled for the second year in a row to compete and win the contest and whilst awaiting the sea voyage back to the UK, he gave high-speed exhibitions of his writing – such was his celebrity status!

In Australia too high-speed competitions were popular. Melbourne radio station 3LO promoted a speed competition in order to allure more people into stenography to stem the shortage of licensed stenographers. I know what you might be thinking - on initial thought, shorthand writing doesn’t particularly stand out as a sport for the radio!  However, radio was the primary source of entertainment with a dedicated audience who were used to forming mental images from words. Candidates in Australia and New Zealand wrote from several passages dictated over the radio then mailed in their ‘neat’ shorthand notes and transcripts. These were to be endorsed by a “Wireless Licence holder”, which was basically a tax imposed if you owned a wireless.

In 1950 Milan, Italy hosted the Inaugural Stenographic Olympics. Qualified participants travelled internationally to compete for Olympic medals. Even a postage stamp was released to celebrate the occasion, such was the importance of the event to the host country.

So, other than a competitive attitude, what does it take to be successful in this sport-like activity?  For a start, learning shorthand requires intensive learning and memorising as to when to apply the many rules associated with the skill. To use a sporting term – one needs to ‘read the game’.  A top athlete is someone who has an understanding of a sport on a different level to that of an occasional player. The theoretical rules of shorthand must be so engrained that they can be instantly applied on hearing what has to be written and even anticipate what is to come. It is said that ‘speed is in the brain’ – outlines will not appear quickly on paper if the brain doesn’t have an absolute depth of knowledge of the theory.

In any sport, concentration on what is happening in the field is imperative. This aspect assists applying the label of ‘sport’ to chess. Chess appeared as an exhibition sport in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and may be included in Olympics in the future.  As chess players point out, concentration for a sustained period of time requires intense mental stamina which training helps achieve. Likewise, the stenographer cannot afford one moment of mental lapse – this would result in gaps in the transcript. Astute concentration is required to decipher accents, voice modulation and volume.

Sport requires precision to score and defeat an opponent. When a football is kicked it is important to hit the mark, be it through the goal or towards a team mate; when serving a tennis ball or taking advantage of that drop shot, where the ball lands can be a game-changer. In shorthand, if an outline is not written with absolute precision under pressure (size and position) it may not be transcribable. Slap-dash doesn’t work.

We cannot think about sports without immediately linking with physical fitness and stamina. Stenographers are constantly in training to ensure their hands can ‘go the distance’ for the duration of the speech, pushing through the writer’s cramp by maintaining physical fitness.

Occasionally tennis matches extend in duration into extraordinary and exhausting lengths of time. Likewise, in 1922 The Daily Express in Wagga Wagga reported on the outstanding feat of two parliamentary stenographers in Innsbruck who, in relay, recorded between them a debate lasting for an epic 32 hours. Overall, they recorded more than 250,000 words, taking half-hour shifts (except when each went home for a bath, then the other wrote for several hours straight).  This grueling effort is equivalent to several marathons and certainly drew upon all the attributes of sporting excellence, endurance, commitment and fitness.

Many of us play sport for enjoyment, physical fitness and social interaction, as opposed to achieving professional status. Likewise, shorthand writers in Pitman Shorthand Writers of Australasia Facebook Group and those who attend U3A Melbourne revision classes and other groups worldwide are not in competition nor have the need to break records. We do, however, certainly gain the benefits of our ‘sport-like’ activity based on aspects of the definition: ‘an activity needing physical effort and skill done according to rules for enjoyment!’

Written by Carmel Taylor.