You can actually make transcription easier, faster, better, and cheaper. Improve recording quality by following some of these tricks before, during, and/or after recording.

Eliminate background noise

Turn off, turn down, or shut sources of noise. You might have gotten used to the sound of your washing machine or music in the background, but participants in a conversation with you might find those sounds annoying – and for a transcriber background noises most certainly are a nuisance when embedded in an audio recording. Close doors and windows and shut off machines that aren’t strictly necessary to have running. Obviously, you can’t eliminate all background noise, but for the sake of your audio recording, you might want to relocate to a quieter setting if you’ve got a railroad in the backyard or bricklayers next door.

Another source of noise and disturbances is phone sounds, e.g. notifications, ringtones, keyboard typing sound effects, vibration, etc. Depending on whether or not – and how – you are using your phone for audio recording, you might want to put it on airplane mode or use the Do Not Disturb feature. And you might want to ask the other participants in the conversation to do the same before you begin recording.

Also, consider if you actually need to take notes during the conversation. Firstly, if you are constantly noting down your own ideas or what’s being said, you are not mentally present in the conversation. This might cause your questions/answers to be irrelevant or less precise, which in turn affects the content, quality, and duration of the conversation. Secondly, taking notes and focusing on writing might cause the speaker to think you are uninterested in what they are saying, also causing a reduction in the quality of the conversation. Thirdly, taking notes on a laptop or scribbling on paper can cause background noise, which the microphone might pick up noise and embed in the recording. Keep notetaking to a minimum and remember that you can always relisten to the audio recording if you need to refreshen your memory – relistening bothers no one and neither does taking notes during relistening.

  • Turn off machines (e.g. air-conditioning, fan, washing machine)
  • Keep some distance between microphone and laptop (laptop fan, really)
  • Put a “do not disturb” sign on the door
  • Close doors and windows (e.g. traffic noise)
  • Put your phone on airplane mode or Do Not Disturb.

Mute your microphone

It would be great if microphones excluded irrelevant sounds and only picked up the important things. But they do pick up every “mmm”, “yea”, “really?”, “okay”, “exactly”, as well as laughter, coughing, sneezing, and background noises. To prevent this kind of noise pollution, turn off your microphone when you are not contributing to the conversation. This is especially important in conversations with more than two speakers, e.g. in Zoom meetings. In some cases, the microphone prioritises the nearest sound source(s), which evidently can be catastrophic, because “nearest” doesn’t entail “relevance”. After all, it’s more important to secure a recording of the interviewee’s points of view than your cough or an endless string of nonessential encouragements.

Sit still

As mentioned above, most microphones don’t actually discriminate between sounds (directional microphones do!). They pick up any sound, including when you for one reason or the other move the recording device. That’s why you don’t actually want to have your laptop on your lap but rather want to place it on a solid, immobile surface. This goes for whoever is recording as well as any other participants since their microphones also pick up sounds from their surroundings.

If for some reason (mostly coffee) you are unable to sit still and keep your hands still, keep them occupied with something soft, e.g. a rag, stuffed toy, ball of yarn, that makes no noise and causes no distraction.

Be quiet

Both interviewers and interviewees should try to be conscious about how often they speak. Crazy as it sounds, a surprising number of people are simply not aware that they are actually talking. Mostly out of habit, some people have a tendency to end their sentences with certain words, phrases, or sounds, such as “know what I mean?“, “right?”, or “innit?” – although they are not asking actual questions. This variation on tag questions falls under the umbrella term speech disfluency, which is an incredibly fascinating feature of spoken language. This particular variety of tag questions often prompts an answer from the listener, e.g. an acknowledgment of agreement or understanding. But as encouraging and reassuring as this form of response and validation can be, it shouldn’t be necessary during an interview. By default, the interviewee should more or less have the stage to themself.

Transcribing a conversation riddled with speech disfluency (repetitions, false starts, breaks, grunts, fillers, etc.) is time-consuming and in most cases adds nothing significant to the end result. To ensure that (mostly irrelevant) input and comments don’t interrupt the speaker and have a detrimental effect on the interview, mute your microphone when you’re off-stage.

Speak up, speak clearly, speak slowly

Apart from thinking before you speak and trying to be brief, you need to ensure that listeners can actually hear what you say. You needn’t completely change how you speak, e.g. put on a posh accent or practically shout to be heard, but speak up, speak clearly, and speak slowly. Take your time to pronounce the words clearly – that makes it easier to both hear and understand what you say. Obviously, it also makes it much easier to transcribe the interview. Place yourself not too far from or close to the recording device (microphone/camera), and try to stay in place to keep both the distance and angle of your position as constant as possible. If you’re in front of a camera, try to position yourself so your mouth is visible at all times – lip reading is a great help when transcribing video with faulty sound. If time allows, do a microphone test and make the necessary adjustments.

Just ask the question (Be brief 1)

When you conduct the interview and ask the questions, be brief. You needn’t provide an elaborate explanation for the meaning of every single question. Do your homework and prepare brief, relevant questions in advance. You might want to consider emailing the interviewee the questions before the interview, which provides an opportunity for you to get feedback on relevance, phrasing, etc., and for the interviewee to prepare relevant answers. A semi-structured interview guide is indeed a blessing for any qualitative interview:

Short and to the point – the basics about semi-structured interviews

Just answer the question (Be brief 2)

During an interview, the interviewee takes center stage and hogs the microphone, which is to be expected and – to a certain degree – encouraged. However, being brief and stating relevant information is essential when being interviewed. Stay on point and on the subject, even if the conversation is invigorating and makes sparks go off in the super creative parts of your brain. The interviewer is buying your knowledge with their time, and neither should be wasted. To stay focused, you can ask to have the questions sent to you prior to the interview, which allows you to prepare relevant answers that you might even want to jot down as helpful keywords to keep you on track during the interview. If you have a tendency to go off on a tangent, tell the interviewer beforehand, so they can gently steer you back to the subject matter when you happen to wander off in an irrelevant direction. If you wish to talk about things that don’t pertain to the core subject of the interview, bring them up at the end of the interview. Once the interview is over, you can put your thoughts and ideas into writing and mail them to the interviewer, provided they agree to this practice.