Shorthand – Still a Vital Office Skill

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Adam Fidler champions the role of shorthand in today’s professional workplace

Do people still use shorthand in the office? Do I need to learn shorthand? Do bosses still “dictate” letters to their secretaries? These are questions I am often asked by secretarial students, who are debating whether to take the time to learn shorthand as part of their studies. This summary provides every good reason why one should learn shorthand, and how shorthand is used today in the modern business office.

We have to caveat this article by remembering that bosses get paid to be creative, and come up with ideas; they get paid to do the talking. Secretaries, by default, get paid to do the organising and recording – and the recording of information, and then transmitting it accurately from one place to another, is one of the prime responsibilities of a PA or secretary. Shorthand should be the first step in this process, and whilst it is true that many bosses rarely “dictate” letters to their secretaries, one could argue that if they still did, their productivity would be greatly enhanced, because it would save them, the bosses, hours of time sat at their computers, typing their own documentation.

So, let us consider how a modern PA enhances business productivity by bringing the skill of shorthand to the office.

Shorthand is used for minute-taking.

PAs and secretaries at all levels today have to be able to take minutes of meetings. Minutes can be taken in longhand or using a lap-top, but the ability of a secretary to keep up with what is being said, and take accurate notes quickly, is often best done by using shorthand. Modern devices such as audio-machines simply cannot record what is being said in a meeting, then make meaningful notes out of what is recorded, by summarising what is important and what is not important. The shorthand secretary, however, can summarise “real-time” in the meeting, and interpret what is being said – all at the same time as listening actively. Moreover, taking minutes in shorthand is effortless, whereas using a PC or longhand can be very fatiguing. Shorthand allows accurate notes to be taken effortlessly over a long period of time, and enables the minute-taking secretary to feel more confident that they are getting everything down and not missing anything in their course of taking minutes.

Shorthand is used for recording instructions and to-dos from the boss.

Bosses rattle off instructions and things that need doing at enormous speed; they can often shout out several items that need attending to, incorporating instructions along the way of how those things should be done, in the space of just a few minutes. The PA or secretary who can take all of this down in shorthand during a face-to-face meeting with the boss, or over the telephone, saves their boss an enormous amount of time. For this method of working – where the boss shouts out what he/she wants doing whilst the PA takes notes – is more efficient than the boss instructing others via email. The only way that so many facts, instructions and deliverables can be carried out is not by entrusting them to memory, as things could be forgotten or misinterpreted, but by recording them in shorthand. Then, when the boss is out of the way, the secretary can read through their notes and decide “What does the boss actually want me to do?” before executing those tasks, delegating them to someone else or saving them until the appropriate part of the working day.

Shorthand helps when taking down telephone messages.

The PA who can take down telephone messages accurately and efficiently is always seen as being a good egg. There are far too many PAs and secretaries who get information jumbled up, or don’t seem to be able to relay an accurate message to the boss that has been left with them. Taking down word for word what someone else has said then passing it on to the boss saves the boss having to be “present” to receive the message, but it also helps the secretary to know what is happening in the business.

Shorthand helps the PA/secretary to “know” and learn.

Today’s PAs need to be as aware of the company’s strategy as their bosses do, and when they sit in a meeting, or with their boss, and take notes using a paper, they will be surprised at what they “know” and pick up – just by listening properly and making notes. Shorthand, therefore, is back in vogue because it helps secretaries to learn – and develop strategic thinking. By writing things down using a pen and paper, one digests and absorbs. This does not happen when using a keyboard or computer (there is now research in educational terms that proves this). If you are a secretary who wants to learn more about your company, simply sit in a management meeting and take notes the old-fashioned way (ideally in shorthand!). Your knowledge of the business and what’s going on will increase tenfold!

Shorthand combines the skills of active listening, summarising, recording and making sense out of chaos.

Just think about the boss who doesn’t speak clearly or slowly, or gets distracted, or goes off on a tangent (sounds familiar?!). These bosses don’t work well with voice-recognition software, because the software would not be able to understand them. Yet the skilled shorthand secretary knows when the boss gets their words mixed up, or calls someone the wrong name in a letter when they mean someone else. The shorthand writer not only takes down notes, but they also listen for sense and then apply logical and rational thought to what is being said. They make sense of nonsense and ensure that information is communicated appropriately, and with diplomacy. This can all start from a simple shorthand note that the secretary then regurgitates into a report or an email on behalf of their boss.

With the fast pace of the business world today, everyone would benefit from the ability to take shorthand notes. For the PA, however, shorthand is a must. Whether working for an accountant or a zoologist, a PA has to be prepared to listen to, to record and act upon an enormous amount of information daily. What office skill could make this task easier than shorthand?

But, you may then ask: “If shorthand is so useful, why don’t more PAs learn it?” The simple answer is, because it’s no easy task. To learn shorthand takes perseverance, dedication and time. But then the same could apply to most skills. And, if skills were easy to learn, then there would be no skill, as everyone would be doing it.

When faced with a pile of 25 CVs, all from “good” PAs, how does an employer whittle them down? It may be that shorthand is the differentiator that makes all the difference. So few PAs now do shorthand, if you can offer it to your employer, then you certainly stand out from the crowd. Last week, one of my former students went for a second interview as a PA to the FD of high-street bank. At interview, she was able to state quite confidently that she wrote shorthand at 80 words per minute. She got the job. I wonder how many other interviewees could say the same thing? The employer did not specifically ask for shorthand, but was delighted to find a PA who had it under their belt as the role required taking confidential minutes of many meetings. It was certainly the icing on the cake for that PA.

Having used my shorthand every day in the office for 20 years, it really is a huge time- saving device – for the boss and for the PA. So, for the time being at least, audio – including iPhones, Dragon Dictation and Siri – will never oust shorthand, even in the 21stcentury office!

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About Author

Adam Fidler

Adam Fidler is an Executive Assistant Consultant who offers teaching, training and self-development of PAs, EAs and Administrators. His popular 2-day Executive PA course 'From good to outstanding' runs regularly through Pitman Training and in South Africa through CBM Training. After graduating with a degree in business studies in 1999, Adam worked as a Board-level Assistant/business support manager in a variety of public and private-sector organisations, incuding Boots PLC, Bank of America and, more latterly, Salford City College. In addition, Adam is a qualified secretarial and business studies teacher, is a shorthand expert and a well-known trainer and speaker at secretarial events, at home and abroad.

30 Comments

  1. I am 62 and job seeking again. I am currently polishing up my shorthand, because that’s what’s going to give me an edge in the workplace.

    • Gwenn O'Malley on

      You are so right, Renee. I am 67, still working in a busy environment because of my shorthand skill. In fact, it is shorthand knowledge that clinched most of my jobs; I was offered my current post when I was 65 and it is with a local Council. I achieved 140 wpm when I was 19 and have kept it up, practising from my 53 year old text books a few times a month! Good luck.

  2. Great article. I have been a PA for a long time and my shorthand skill has definitely given me the advantage when applying for a new role, especially, in non-UK locations.

  3. NJABU C. FODAY on

    my brother I don’t know how to thank you for this post. indeed you have brought hope into my heart because for long we have been told that the subject is no longer relevant and that we should stop teaching it to our students. I am a lecturer and currently a Head of Department in the Secretarial Studies dept., had it not been for our stance, my colleagues and I, it would have been stamped out long ago. thank you very much for this article. God bless you

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful article. It is great to hear that shorthand is still a valuable skill, in light of today\\\’s technologies. In college my shorthand instructor would have us walk around the room while he dictated so that we could practice in a realistic setting. As a result some of us developed speeds upward of 300 wpm. I am so grateful to my shorthand teachers. At 60 I feel nowhere near retirement, and it is comforting to know my skills may still be in need somewhere. Thank you, thank you, Mr. Fidler.

  5. I like how you said that someone who can write shorthand knows how to make logical and rational thought to what is said. This would be really helpful in anything that requires lots of information to be written down in a short amount of time. That way you can simply decipher what was written and you have access to everything that was said.

  6. Meya, Taiwo N. on

    I am happy to read this write-up about shourthand online because my people around me beliefs that shorthand is outdated. I am confirming it that senior secondary schools in Nigeria are no more teaching shorthand at their various school while shorthand are still part of junior school curriculum in Business Studies. No continuity after that junior school experience.

    I wish shorthand is compulsory in other to prepare/train/tame/re-mould students to have edge in any chosen career of there choice.

  7. Lesley Harrison on

    I have a Pitman Script Dictionary in my school library. I am reluctant to throw it away but don’t know how to pass it on to someone who would find it useful.
    Any ideas?

  8. I am happy that I was able to read a very informative article on shorthand because all my life I have been a shorthand and Typewriting teacher and now in this modern world I am hearing all sorts of negative remarks about typewriting and shorthand. Many feel shorthand has phased out of the office world. They also believe that it do not belong to this world of technology but after reading this article it builds my confidence in shorthand once again. Thanks for this article.

  9. I thought all you shorthand writers would be pleased to read this:

    “The Extraordinary Value of Shorthand

    As a brain exercise, shorthand has a unique value. That is, a unique exercise in attention and mental agility. It develops coordination and motor response. It sharpens the intelligence. It exercises the memory. It cultivates and stimulates rapid and precise decision, perception and discernment. It develops a high degree of concentration ability. It develops an interpretive skill and increases the ability to hear nuances.”

    I believe everyone would benefit from learning shorthand. I remember one of my boss’s clients left me a very detailed message and asked if I’d “gotten that.” He didn’t expect my response: “Yes, I took it down verbatim. Would you like me to read it back to you.” Was he every impressed!!!

    • Absolutely. Agree with you Jean. I think those who know shorthand have an edge over the others especially when you have a boss expects you to note down all that he dictates meticulously.

  10. Cecilia Garcia on

    Good article. Is shorthand still taught? I’d be interested in learning. It use to be an elective in high school.

  11. Laurence Almand on

    I worked as an executive secretary and then an office manager for 22 years, and I will say that shorthand will never be replaced. A skilled person who knows shorthand and can grind out the work will always have a job. Shorthand is a tremendous time (and money) saver. Employers are always impressed by a person who can write the words quickly and get the job done.

    Shorthand is fast and convenient and greatly increases productivity. Some executives learn shorthand so they can write quick responses to letters without having to wait for the secretary to transcribe and then type out the responses. It is supposed to be one of those “dying arts” but it will never go out of style so long as employers appreciate efficiency.

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