Edmonton student’s TikTok take on stenography puts shorthand on the social media fast track

Stenography, the old-fashioned art of writing shorthand, is getting a popularity boost thanks to a series of how-to videos posted by an Edmonton student.

Isabelle Lumsden, who is taking a stenography course at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, featured her weird-looking stenotype machine in a video that she posted on TikTok in September. 

And people were hooked. Soon there were 3.3 million views on the video, close to half a million likes, and the 23-year-old was fielding a flood of questions.

“People were most fascinated by the keys and actually just how they work,” Lumsden told CBC’s Edmonton AM. “Lots of people were commenting, saying it was like witchcraft and very thrown off by it.”

Isabelle Lumsden pictured with her stenotype machine. Her TikTok videos about stenography and court reporting have gone viral. (David Bajer/ CBC)

Unlike the standard QWERTY keyboard, the stenotype machine has only 22 keys.

They’re used by court reporters who capture verbatim testimony during trials, hearings or depositions. The shorthand tapped into the stenotype looks like an alien language before being translated into proper sentences using a connected computer.

Shortage of court reporters

Stenography is often described as one of the original careers for women, dating back to the 1880s. But the profession seems to have lost its lustre, if news articles citing a North American shortage of court reporters are anything to go by.

According to a 2019 article in the Wall Street Journal, the school dropout rate for court reporters is around 80 to 85 per cent. 

When her mom suggested she consider court reporting as a career, Lumsden was intrigued.

“I’m personally a big fan of true crime, I’m the type of person who likes it when no two days are the same in my everyday life so I really thought it would be a good fit,” she said. 

Lumsden’s stenotype setup. She plugs the stenotype into her computer, which translates the shorthand into full sentences. (David Bajer/ CBC)

After the success of her first video, Lumsden dedicated her TikTok channel to stenography and court reporting. She’s gained about 80,000 followers and has been featured in BuzzFeed. 

Because TikTok videos are only a minute long, Lumsden has released several that explain exactly how the machine works and how the keys form words.

With so many transcription tools available online, some people have asked if she is concerned about seeing her job taken over by artificial intelligence.

“And all I could say to that was, I’m about as concerned as anybody would be about it taking over their job,” she said. “There’s so many things that stenographers can do that machines just can’t do yet.” 

Hours of practice

Lumsden isn’t the first Edmontonian to make headlines in stenography.

In 2016, Jeffrey Weigl won the National Court Reporters Association Shorthand Speed Contest, becoming the first Canadian to hold the title since the competition began in 1909.

“It’s almost like a video game,” Weigl told CBC, explaining his ability to transcribe a whopping 280 words a minute. 

On average, court reporters can type between 180 to 225 words per minute.

Lumsden said she was told to practise a minimum of two hours a day. So far she can capture up to 80 words per minute but is working her way to 100.

With the shortage of stenographers in Canada and the United States, combined with the surprising popularity of her TikTok videos, Lumsden is confident about her future employment prospects.

“I’m talking to people kind of all across North America, which is awesome,” she said.

LISTEN | Student goes viral with stenography videos: 

Edmonton AM6:52Edmonton’s star stenography student

Meet a NAIT student who wanted to draw attention to the world of stenography — and became Tik Tok sensation in the process. 6:52

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