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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky

Volume 16 Issue 10

October 2022

Dictation: Talk to Your Computer or Mobile Device, It Does All the Typing

What is dictation?


Instead of typing on a keyboard, you speak into your device's microphone and the dictation software takes your spoken words and hopefully types an accurate transcription of what you said.


In general, this involves the following steps:


  • On your Windows computer, Macintosh, iPhone, iPad, or Android, you would open the program or app where you would normally type in your text. That might be your email program or Microsoft Word or a text editor on your computer, the text messaging or email or Notes app on your mobile device, etc.
  • You would get the insertion point (the "vertical blinking line") by starting a new document or message, opening an existing document to edit it, etc.
  • Depending on your dictation software, you would start by clicking or tapping on its icon (which typically looks like a little microphone) or using its keyboard shortcut.
  • That software will probably indicate that it's listening and ready to transcribe your voice by playing a sound (like a beep) and showing an on-screen indication (like an animated sound wave or by changing the color of its microphone icon).
  • You would speak into your device's microphone, and your dictation software will type what it can detect that you're saying.
  • When you're finished, you would stop the dictation by clicking or tapping that icon again or using a keyboard shortcut.
  • You would edit the resulting text if needed.
  • You would then perform the next appropriate step, e.g., saving that document, sending that message, storing that note, etc.


Good uses for dictation software


Dictation programs have gotten better and more accurate over the years as the software has improved and computer hardware has gotten faster. Most of the time, you no longer need to spend hours laboriously "training" the software to understand your voice.


The current generation of dictation software can be a very good start for the first draft of many things, including:


  • Word processing documents, including stories, interviews, nonfiction, etc.
  • Email messages, both the Subject and the Body
  • Text messages
  • Notes
  • To-do lists
  • Calendar event descriptions
  • Filling out forms: You'll have to start and stop the dictation for each field.


Dictation can save you some time and effort compared to typing, and it can give you very good results, but it's rarely perfect. If you care about the quality of what you're writing (and being understood), you will probably need to review and edit the text in order to correct minor (and sometimes major) mistakes.


Note that if you write in multiple languages, as long as the software supports all of those languages, you'll simply need to choose the given language before you start dictating.


When dictation is not a good choice


If you need to write anything that requires precise spelling, capitalization, numbers, spaces, or intricate punctuation, you'll probably find that dictation software won't work well at all, including:


  • Detailed editing
  • Final drafts
  • Proper nouns
  • Passwords
  • Abbreviations
  • Email addresses
  • Website addresses
  • Specialized terminology, including legal, medical, or technical


For these, you will probably get better results quicker if you simply type them manually.




Using dictation software is very different from typing.


In general, it will try to type the words that you speak, but it's very literal. In particular, you will have to say extra words aloud to get punctuation. For example:


To get this text: After waiting a few minutes, I decided to leave.

You will have to say: after waiting a few minutes comma i decided to leave period


Note that most dictation software will capitalize the first letter of the text you speak. However, controlling what other words get capitalized will depend on the software that you're using, and some just don't have that feature.


To get this text: I tried their "veggie burger," but it had no flavor!

You will have to say: i tried their quote veggie burger comma close quote but it had no flavor exclamation mark


To get this text: What should I do next?

You will have to say: what should i do next question mark


Sometimes dictation software can recognize the context and make a more intelligent choice, for example:


In general, if you say: period

You will get a period character: .


But if you say: jurassic period

You may get: Jurassic period


If you don't want to speak the punctuation, or if you forget, you can always type it in later.


Other issues


Dictation software will ignore your inflection, your tone of voice, and how loudly or softly you talk. However, how clearly and distinctly you speak (and separate) each word can make a big difference.


Here are some other issues you may experience:


  • Homonyms: beetles/Beatles, board/bored, butter/but her, I/eye/aye, its/it's, mac/Mack, Macintosh/McIntosh, minor/miner, summer/Sommer, there/they're/their, today/to day, valley/Valli, wan/Juan, way/weigh, web/Webb, when/wen, etc.
  • Subtle differences in pronunciation: aunt/ant, clock/cloak/cluck, marine/Maureen, merry/marry/Mary, mother/mutter, etc.
  • Numbers: When you say "one" it might type "1" instead.
  • If you misspeak while dictating, you can either keep going and correct it later, or you can stop, remove it, and start again.
  • Proper names: It may not capitalize or spell them correctly.
  • Formatting: It may not understand if you say "bold," "italic," "underline," etc.
  • To start a new paragraph, say "new paragraph"
  • To start a new line, say "new line"; in a word processor, "new paragraph" is the better choice.


Since you will be able to see what it types as you go, if you see a mistake you can always stop the dictation, correct it, and then resume.


Dictating text vs. computer commands


Apart from saying "comma" etc. while dictating to get punctuation, some dictation programs also let you tell your computer to perform certain actions, like Save, Print, etc.


You might need to say a special phrase (or use a special keyboard shortcut) to switch between pure dictation and "command mode" or "Voice Control." However, it can also be frustrating if your device doesn't recognize what you're saying, or worse, misinterprets and does something that you didn't want. Save your work often!


Starting and stopping


If you want to try dictation, here is a quick overview of how you would do that on each platform using its built-in software. Use Google to learn more.


On Windows 10 & 11:


To start: Place your insertion point (the vertical blinking line) in an editable text area, then use the keyboard shortcut Windows-H (i.e., on your keyboard, hold down the Windows key, tap the "H" key, then release the Windows key). The Dictation Toolbar will appear and prompt you with "Listening...."


To stop: Type Windows-H again (which also closes that toolbar) or tap any key on the keyboard (which leaves the toolbar open).


Common problems on Windows:


  • Stuck on "Initializing....": Either Restart your computer, or use the Task Manager to end the "Microsoft Text Input Application" task, and then start again.
  • Dictation Toolbar gets in the way, covering something that you need to see: Click and drag its gray area to move it.


On Macintosh:


To enable dictation in MacOS 10.13 or later: Go to System Preferences->Keyboard->Dictation


To start: Place your insertion point (the vertical blinking line) in an editable text area, then use the keyboard shortcut or say the special phrase (both are set in System Preferences) or use Edit->Start Dictation. The little Feedback Window will appear, showing a microphone icon.


To stop: Tap the keyboard shortcut again, or click "Done" in the Feedback Window, or use Edit->Stop Dictation.


On an iPhone, iPad, or Android mobile device:


To start or stop: Place your insertion point (the vertical blinking line) in an editable text area, then tap the little "microphone" icon.


Note that it can be tricky to edit the resulting text on a mobile device. You'll need to learn special "tap" and "tap-and-hold" techniques using just your finger, or use an external (usually Bluetooth) keyboard.




Dictation requires a few things:


  • Before you can start, your current "focus" has to be an editable text area (already showing a blinking vertical line, a.k.a., the "insertion point") into which you can type, e.g., a document, email, note, text message, etc.
  • Some dictation programs, including the built-in dictation software on a computer or mobile device, also need an internet connection. You can confirm this by temporarily disabling your internet connection and then see if the dictation stops working. See also "Privacy and security concerns," below.
  • You must also have a working microphone, either built into your device or you can use an external one. Your headset or webcam probably already has one.
  • It also really helps to be in a quiet room, or to at least have very low ambient noise. Turn off your TV or radio. In hot weather, don't have an air conditioner or fan running nearby.




If you're having trouble getting accurate results from dictation:


  • If it doesn't type the first few words you say, try waiting a moment before you speak to give the software a moment to start up.
  • If you get very strange results, try speaking more slowly and distinctly, leaving crisp silences between each word. Try to avoid speaking too fast or slurring your words.


Privacy and security concerns


If you're using commercial (paid) speech recognition software on your computer, your voice is probably getting processed into text on your computer, without using the internet.


However, if you're using the free, built-in dictation software on your computer or mobile device, it is probably uploading your voice to an online server for processing, and then downloading the resulting text. That means that:


  • Everything you say during dictation gets sent over the internet to a server (a group of computers) owned by Microsoft or Apple or Google, and they may keep that audio data for their own purposes, long after your dictation session is over. This is subject to the terms of their Privacy policy, and whether they actually honor it or not.
  • Problems with your internet connection may affect or delay the results, or even prevent the dictation from working at all.


Transcribing previously-recorded speech


Most dictation software is designed to transcribe your live voice in the moment.


However, you might already have previously-recorded voice audio files that you'd like to transcribe into text. Your dictation software probably can't process them because your device's microphone can't be activated while you're playing back those recordings, most likely to avoid audio feedback.


Instead, you could:


  • Try using dictation software on one device while playing those recordings back on another, which will depend on the quality (and volume) of the speakers, as well as the distance to the microphone.
  • Use computer software specifically designed to transcribe your audio recordings, which may work privately on your computer or it may use the internet.
  • Use an online service that will let you upload your recordings and then provide you with transcriptions that you would download. Some services use software, others employ professional transcriptionists. This might not be a good choice for recordings that are very private or confidential.


Where to go from here


To learn more about how to start, operate, and stop dictation on your particular device:


  • google: dictation windows
  • google: dictation mac OR macintosh
  • Where X is iPhone, iPad, or Android: google: dictation X
  • google: dictation computer command
  • google: dictation privacy OR security
How to contact me:
phone: (617) 484-6657

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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