Shorthand has been a vital tool for journalists, secretaries and all manner of professionals over the years. But is it still relevant in today’s electronic age? Chris Bond reports.
It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Piers Morgan but I was pleased to hear him champion the importance of shorthand this week.
Morgan, who bagged the first international TV interview with Donald Trump recently, has urged all would-be journalists to learn the skill.
“Having an ability to take fast contemporaneous handwritten notes as a back-up to technology is invaluable. I still use Teeline on Good Morning Britain during a big breaking news story live on air when I want to make a note of a powerful quote, and repeat it very soon afterwards,” he said.
The former newspaper editor turned TV presenter also offered a cautionary tale about relying on technology. “Tape recorders are great until they don’t work, as I once discovered when I interviewed Rod Stewart for an hour and later could only hear my voice...”
This year Teeline shorthand, as opposed to the more challenging Pitman variation traditionally favoured by secretaries, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It was developed by Bradford schoolteacher James Hill, who wanted to come up with a quicker and more straightforward method of note-taking. He began experimenting as early as 1939, and decades later saw some promising results when he taught experimental classes to journalism trainees.
In 1968 the system was recommended to the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), and in November that year its shorthand consultant Harry Butler wrote: “We have on our hands a shorthand breakthrough which should solve longstanding shorthand problems. I have never known a shorthand system that can produce such good results in so short a time.”
Since then it’s become something of a rite of passage for would-be journalists as they struggle to reach 100 words per minute – the industry standard.
As someone who passed their shorthand exam (at the second attempt) and uses it every day, I can vouch for its importance and the time it takes to get up to speed. But it’s a bit like riding a bike, in that once you’ve learnt it you don’t forget.
To the untrained eye shorthand looks like gobbledegook or hieroglyphics, but to those who use it it’s an invaluable method that allows them to write down information, and transcribe it back, quickly.
It’s a skill that can be traced back to the days of the Roman Senate and once had associations with witchcraft.
However, in an age of electronic voice recording and when messages and breaking news stories can be tweeted out in an instant, is it now becoming obsolete?
There are those who believe the answer is ‘yes’.
They argue that it’s been supplanted by technology and that more emphasis should be given to teaching investigative skills, rather than ensuring what somebody says can be reported parrot-fashion.
Nigel Green, a senior lecturer in journalism at Leeds Trinity University, believes shorthand remains an invaluable tool for both young journalists and seasoned hacks.
“It’s important because there are some places, such as a court, where you can’t use a voice recorder,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t have access to technology or the technology breaks down and you need to scribble notes on a bit of paper.”
It’s not only journalists who use it either. It has long been an important secretarial skill and is still useful in the modern business world. “There are students that have gone into marketing or other professions who said they use shorthand in meetings,” says Green.
“The younger generation can find it a bit of a dull slog, but as I tell my students not everything in life is easy, sometimes you have to work hard to learn something useful.”