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You have to hand it to Nuance. The latest Dragon Professional voice recognition software is impressive. So is its business model.

Dragon’s software is expensive by today’s standards. A single user licence for Dragon Professional version 6 costs US$300. You can buy a PC for less.

Keep in mind both Apple and Microsoft include voice recognition software as part of their operating systems. Neither application is free, but they are already paid for. So, in effect, Dragon is, asking people to pay again for something they already have.

That puts the business’s livelihood on the line. To make it work, Dragon has to offer something special. It does that. Dragon Professional version 6 performs far better than the alternatives from Apple and Microsoft. It uses something called deep learning to improve accuracy.

Dragon Professional more accurate than alternatives

Dragon claims this means the software has 99 percent recognition accuracy. There’s no easy way to verify the claim, but in testing the software does a near perfect job of turning spoken words into computer text.

What the numbers don’t tell you is that even a small improvement in voice recognition accuracy means a vast improvement in the experience. The difference between going back and correcting every tenth word, 90 percent accuracy, and every hundredth word, 99 percent accuracy is huge.

You can improve performance by training the software. If you’re committed to using Dragon, then investing some time makes sense. Yet in practice the software works so well out of the box you might decide to just get on with it.

It seems the software does some form of training when in use. Every so often there’s a message to say Dragon is updating your profile.

Integrated app

Dragon Professional isn’t a stand-alone application. It is integrated into the operating system. It works with other apps. Apple Pages and Microsoft Word are the obvious candidates, but any program using text input should work.

It works with almost every Mac app that uses keyboard input. In theory you can control less word-oriented apps such as image editors, but that doesn’t make practical sense. Having said that, Dragon Professional is excellent at performance everyday MacOS commands. It would be an ideal tool if you had access problems with your hands.

A small icon appears in the Mac’s menu bar, in much the same way as other system level apps. When the software is in use a small floating window opens on the screen with three more icons. There’s also a guidance window with help when you need it.

For most of the time the second window keeps out of the way. The main one is small enough to not be a distraction. The microphone icon shows green when it is on and red when it off, otherwise there’s not much to see.

If you like using the cursor you can switch between Dictation, Command, Spelling and Numbers mode using the main floating window.

There’s a transcription mode which allows you to turn audio files into text. It’s a lot more hit and miss than the normal dictation software. It manages to cope with a few minutes of audio where there is only one speaker, but chokes if you attempt to transcribe, say, an interview with two people talking.

A personal productivity note

While the technology in Dragon’s latest voice recognition software is impressive, it’s not for me. After forty years of touch typing, I write with my fingertips. Any attempt to compose faultless prose using my voice ends in an embarrassing mess.

That’s not to say I don’t make typing errors. Anyone who has read my tweets can see that. Yet the flow of my writing is so much better when I hit keys than when I speak. No doubt that would change if I spent thousands of hours improving my technique. Simple economics says I’m better off sticking with what I know.

Take this blog post as Illustrating how this works. I started out trying to use the Dragon Professional software to write the post.

It was a disaster. Although professional scribes are taught to ‘write like you talk’, that advice is not meant to be taken literally. When I gave up on voice recognition, I hit the ground running and finished the post in minutes.

There’s another problem that may affect some readers. I feel self-conscious and uncomfortable when dictating to a machine. There’s nothing worse than knowing people can hear you as you compose a story. That’s not an issue when I type.

While we are on the personal stuff I should mention another major plus for Dragon. Most voice recognition tools struggle with my accent. It’s a hybrid British-antipodean thing.

UK voice recognition settings don’t work for me. Nor do New Zealand ones. Oddly, Australian settings get me the best result on Apple equipment. Nothing seems to cope with my voice on Microsoft systems. Dragon Professional worked out of the box even though the settings are hard-wired to New Zealand.

Verdict

All the above leaves me in an odd position. I’m about to recommend a product that I wouldn’t normally use myself. So let’s run through the main points again. Dragon Professional version 6 does an excellent job of turning spoken words into text. The software is accurate and reliable. It also provides a great way to control a Mac when you can’t or don’t want to use hands.

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Speaking to a huge audience while live on the radio was an important step to overcoming my fear of public speaking.

It is one thing to speak to a microphone and one or two others in a studio. Standing in front of a crowd or on a stage is something else.

I cracked it by starting small with:

  • a small crowd,
  • a short talk
  • an informal setting
  • and an easy topic.

My first official public speaking engagement was for a local computer company in Wellington, New Zealand. The company held regular evening events with food and drink for its customers. It would invite speakers and get them to talk informally about a technology subject likely to interest the audience.

Find a public speaking subject you know about

The company’s managing director asked me to talk for about 20 minutes on my work as a technology journalist. I can talk on this subject about for hours.

Although I prepared and wrote out a list of topics to cover, I didn’t have formal notes. It turns out these are more of a hinderance than a help. and some nervous people are too ready to hide behind them.

Today some hide behind Powerpoint slides. This can make for an awful audience experience.

Thankfully, the audience was unintimidating, maybe 25 or so people and the mood was friendly.

When I finished a discussion started which went on for almost another hour. I didn’t realise until afterwards that I chaired the discussion keeping things moving along when it flagged. I just did what came naturally.

Over the next few months I had a few similar speaking engagements, the audiences remained small, but the session length and topics would be different. After around five or six events I was comfortable enough to tackle a larger crowd.

For years I couldn’t speak in front of an audience. I was terrified.

Informal speaking to a small group wasn’t a problem. Put me on a stage in front of a crowd and I’d freeze.

My voice would crack or go up an octave. I’d be muddled, confused and unable to remember what I had to say.

If I had notes, I was too nervous to read them. It was painful. And embarrassing.

I was in my mid-20s and my career was taking off. My fear of public speaking was starting to limit my options. People want to hear what an editor has to say. Sooner or later there’s a ceremony or some other formal speaking event that can’t be avoided.

Then overnight, I cracked it.

The secret was something simple: radio.

Speaking on radio

At the time I edited a computer magazine for beginners. One Christmas, BBC Radio London asked me to come to the studio on Boxing Day to field questions from new computer owners who didn’t know how to get started.

It was a subject I was more than comfortable talking about. There were only two or three of us in the studio. It was a long session, two or three hours, long enough to get over my nerves.

The show went so well, the BBC asked me back.

Soon I was getting radio spots on stations all over the UK and national ones too. I had regular appearances on BBC Armed Forces Network and then, the BBC World Service.

At this point I realised I was speaking to a large audience and people found what I had to say was interesting.

This gave me the confidence to speak in public, but to stand on a stage still felt scary. There’s a follow-up post looking at how I managed the next step overcoming my fear of public speaking.

In journalism quotes tell readers information isn’t made up by a reporter, but is someone’s account or opinion.

Not all quotes are equal. The best come directly from an interviewee’s speech and faithfully reproduced. In electronic media these are obvious – you see or hear the person in question saying their own words.

With written media, quotes are either direct or indirect. Direct quotes are shown inside speech marks and are more or less exactly the interviewee’s words.

I say “more or less exactly” because many journalists, myself included, tidy up, taking out the hesitations, the ums and the ahs. This is perfectly OK. What isn’t acceptable is putting words in someone’s mouth – words they didn’t use.

We edit – often the reader only sees part of an interview. It wouldn’t be practical to include every word.

Journalists use indirect quotes to simplify and summarise an interviewee’s words, they improve readability.

The best quotes come from interviews

Most quotes you see in written media come from interviews. Some come from prepared statements.

Organisations use prepared statements to control their message rather than answering pesky questions from nosey journalists whose job is to extract the truth not parrot propaganda.

Prepared statements don’t read like human speech. For some reason people think robotic English makes them sound more sincere or knowledgeable. Often the reverse is true.

Journalists don’t always make it clear when they repeat prepared statements. This isn’t dishonesty. It happens because constantly telling readers where information comes from quickly gets boring.

On the other hand, journalists shouldn’t pull the wool over reader’s eyes.

I tell my readers when a quote is from a statement when I’m writing a news story or feature, but not if I’m writing a two paragraph snippet. Most of the time I also tell readers if a quote is from an emailed response – which may have been written by committee.

There’s a fine line between full disclosure and boring readers. But if the story is controversial or important, take the risk and be candid.