Category Archives: Focus group transcription

Focus Group recording – top ten tips

If you’re planning to record focus groups and get them transcribed later on, here are some things you may find it useful to consider before starting your recording:

  • Check with the participants before the focus group starts that they do not mind being recorded for later transcription. Do this well in advance as if one person objects you may have to abandon the recording.
  • Conduct explanations about your research and give background information before switching on the recorder, to save on recording time.
  • If you need to have the different speakers identified in the focus group transcription ask each person to introduce him/herself. Just saying their name is not enough. For the transcriber to get a ‘handle’ on the voices, they will need to each say a couple of sentences. Use something linked to your focus group topic. So for example, if your group is about farmers’ experience of vets, ask each farmer to say their name, where they farm and what livestock they keep on the farm.
  • Lay down the ground rules to participants before you start e.g. remind them not to talk over each other as this will cause problems for the transcriptionist.
  • Use an external microphone (or even more than one) on your recorder. Internal mikes are only suitable for dictation (one voice). Ideally, if you have more than four people, use a series of microphones.
  • Record the group in a quiet place. Background noise can drastically reduce the quality of the recording and increase the time taken to transcribe.
  • Make sure you use a recorder that has a facility for transferring files to a PC
  • Use a file format that is compressed, so that it can be transferred over the internet to your transcriptionist
  • Check your recorder is recording before you start the focus group!
  • Do not serve food while recording the group as the noises of eating will obscure participants’ speech.

For more detailed information on focus group recording, or to request a quote, please see our focus group page at Penguin Transcription


Transcription – offshoring, onshoring, in-housing, outsourcing?

Transcription might seem like an obvious thing to outsource and ‘offshore’. After all, ‘it’s only typing isn’t it? It’s not rocket science?’ And yet ‘onshoring’ has been in the news a lot lately, with both positive and negative slants. On the one hand, onshoring could boost the UK economy; on the other hand, the fact that it now ‘costs roughly the same’ to make noodles in China as it does in the UK, according to the recent news story about Symington’s Noodles bringing noodle production back from China to the UK, is an alarming indictment on the state of the UK economy. But it’s not just that companies feel they can now pay even lower wages to UK staff; it is also the rise an rise of wages in China, exchange rate fluctuations and shipping costs too.

So how does transcription fit into this discussion? Well, another recent argument for onshoring has been quality concerns. And this article about IT onshoring suggests a number of other important concerns too: “…time zone challenges, language and other communication issues, high turnover (up to 40% annually in some cases) in offshore locations, intellectual property and security risks (especially in unregulated countries like China), are just some of the unanticipated issues that have plagued offshore development.”

And a number of of those issues could also affect transcription – the obvious one is language. Unless English is a first language then there is no way that someone can provide top quality ‘general’ transcription i.e. interview transcription services and focus group or meeting transcription services. It is possible (though perhaps doubtful) that they can provide equal quality dictated notes, for example, but a conversation – full of idioms, homonyms, a wide variety of different technical terminologies – no.

So … if I’m suggesting you should keep your transcription ‘onshore’ then what about keeping it in-house? Surely keeping it as local as possible will minimise the problems? Well no, not necessarily. And this is where we come to the ‘just typing, not rocket science’ issue. It’s true – it’s not rocket science, but it does require specialist skills, and even if you’re lucky enough to have access to a secretary or PA who can type, that doesn’t mean they can provide fast, accurate, grammatically correct and readable transcripts from an audio file … and all that on top of their regular workload.

I’m sure it will come as no surprise that I am recommending onshoring and outsourcing, since this is the service that we offer here at Penguin Transcription,  but I think you will agree that the arguments are valid.

Valentines Day – it’s all about love, and we love transcription!

We all love transcription here – which is a bonus as it’s what we do for most of each working day, but it’s rather like dentistry or chiropody – although we love it, it puts a shudder up most people’s spines. Sally at described it as ‘trudging through treacle’, and she is certainly not alone.

So why do love it? I think the number one thing for all of us is variety – one day we could be typing children talking about a local film project and the next day (or the next hour) we could be transcribing blue-chip directors discussing their use of technology or top academics discussing the intricacies of animal parasites. OK, that last one doesn’t sound too appealing, I have to admit, but the point is every single project is different, and within the projects, every single interview is different. What’s not to love?

Well, there are a few things we don’t love – notably poor-quality recordings, badly moderated focus groups, people at meetings who eat and talk at the same time (not pleasant if you’re actually in the room, but way, way worse on a recording) and bits of hardware or software suddenly packing up for no reason.

But even taking all those things into account we all enjoy the opportunity to learn a little bit about so many different things. It’s guaranteed never to be boring. And of course we don’t spend all day transcribing – just most of it. Recently we had Rory the Penguin in for a photo-shoot for our upcoming newsletter. He enjoyed his visit and participated fully in the life of the office. If you want to see him answering the phone (no doubt a surprise to the person on the other end), loading the printer, and indeed having a go at transcribing, then sign up to our newsletter! Only six a year so you won’t be bombarded with unwanted information, and we aim to keep it light, informative and fun. And we’re planning a special competition later in the year to celebrate our tenth anniversary.   Don’t miss out – sign up today!

Getting the best from a recording for transcription

There are many transcription services available but sometimes an affordable transcription service can seem hard to find. Transcription is not cheap, because it is a lot more involved than copy typing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a good deal with a transcription service, and what’s more, by providing good quality recordings you can make the transcription more affordable, as it will take less time to complete.

Here are a few things to consider:

Time Taken to Transcribe

When pricing up your options the most important thing to remember is that it’s just not possible to type as fast as you speak. Even an experienced transcriptionist will be able to average four times as long for a good, clear one-to-one interview – so an hour of recording will take an average of four hours to transcribe. (Industry standards obtained from the Industry Production Standards Guide, published by OBC, Columbus, OH, USA). But a poor quality recording will take much longer. So how can you make sure that your transcript is clear, in order to get an affordable transcription price? Basically, the easier you make the transcription for the transcriptionist, the more likely they are to be able to give you an affordable transcription quote.


First of all, use the best transcription equipment you can afford, and make sure it’s right for your needs. This means that for interviews you should have a recorded with an external microphone rather than one built into the recorder, which is only designed to pick up dictation. For focus groups you should ideally have several microphones so that all participants are audible, and for conferences the speakers should have good microphones and there should also be people in the audience with ‘roving’ microphones to take around to any audience members wanting to ask a question.


Always try to make sure that you are recording in a quiet environment. Open windows can cause big problems unless you have a ‘noise cancelling’ microphone, which many digital ones are these days. So can air conditioning, so if you do have an air conditioning unit in the room try to ensure your speakers are not situated close to it. If conducting interviews by phone, and assuming that you have arranged these in advance (and asked permission to record, of course) then it’s helpful to ask your interviewee to try to make sure they’re in a quiet environment too!


If you are interviewing and you want the names included then it is helpful to spell out your interviewee’s name at the beginning of the recording, before starting the interview, and speak out any information you would like on the transcript header e.g. the date, the job title of your interviewee etc. For conferences a speaker list and also a delegate list, if there will be audience questions, can save the transcriptionist a lot of time in trying to work out names and organisations.

Care with Conversation 

During the interview, unless you need to interrupt in order to take back control of the interview, try not to speak over your interviewee. Often in a normal conversation we say ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ or ‘right’ or ‘OK’ more to indicate we’re listening than for any other reason. Every time you say that you are likely to be obscuring a much more important word or group of words spoken by your interviewee. And in conferences or panel discussions, if one speaker is giving a talk (i.e. without interruptions, not a discussion) make sure everyone else’s microphones are turned off. I have, in the past, had to mark whole sentences or even paragraphs of a talk as inaudible, because all I could hear were two panel members chatting about their holidays or little Jonny’s operation, and not the speaker!


Most transcriptionists work in a standard format, whether that be tabular, tabbed, interviews shown as initials or full names etc. Again most are happy to work to your specifications, but the standard format might well be cheaper, so think carefully about whether you need something different or not. Find out what the standard format is in advance if it concerns you, and you may be able to adapt it to your needs.


Finally, give some serious thought to whether or not you need a verbatim transcription. Verbatim transcription includes every repeated word, every ‘um’ and ‘erm’, all those ‘filler’ phrases like ‘you know’ and ‘know what I mean’ that may be repeated a hundred times in one interview, and can also include pauses, coughs, throat clearing etc. if required. Needless to say, this takes longer. If the transcriptionist can filter out all this stuff the transcript is quicker. In my company the cheapest level is what we call ‘intelligent verbatim’ which cuts out all these fillers but leaves the rest exactly as it’s spoken. Different transcriptionists work this differently though, so always check when you’re phoning for your quote. You can find detailed information about our editing levels on our website.

There are, of course, occasions when verbatim is required – depending on your topic it might be required for legal reasons, or you might be studying the language. But if you really don’t need it, don’t end up paying for it!


And finally, remember that the cheapest transcription quote might not be the most affordable one in the end. There is an oft-quoted phrase: if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. Will it really be cost-effective to send your hard-won interviews to the cheapest service if what comes back is gobbledygook and you have to go through the whole thing correcting every other word? How much time will you then waste that could have been spent more productively? Recommendation is always the ideal way to find a service, but if no one you know can recommend a transcription service then look for testimonials. A good company with a strong track record should always be able to provide these. If you’re still not sure, ask questions and base your decision on the quality of the answers. Things you might like to ask are: turnaround time (when will you get the transcripts), confidentiality procedures, whether they have experience in your field, what the standard format is etc.

First Penguin Transcription Client Satisfaction Survey

This is probably something I should have done a long time ago, but I’ve finally set up a client satisfaction survey, which all clients have the opportunity to fill in, and for which they receive a link when I send them their invoice.

So far the feedback has been incredibly positive. The first positive, for me, was that anyone bothered to fill it in at all, but we have had quite a good response rate. It’s only been running a couple of months but her are some of the highlights:

  • 80% of respondents used our website
  • 100% of respondents would use Penguin Transcription again
  • 100% of respondents were very satisfied with the readability of our transcripts
  • 90% were very satisfied and the other 10% satisfied with our transcript quality
  • 90% very satisfied and 10% satisfied with our ability to identify and correctly use technical words
  • 100% of respondents were very satisfied with our ability to distinguish different speakers in recordings with multiple speakers

One client mentioned that he needed to take the transcripts we sent and put them into a different layout with line numbering etc., so I will be contacting him to explain that this is something we can do for him, at no extra cost, to save him a bit of time. We can work with any Microsoft Word-based template that you provide, and can also work in Excel templates, but that will sometimes incur an extra cost as it’s a little more awkward and can take extra time.

Clients who respond are put into a quarterly draw to win an Amazon voucher, and the survey only takes five minutes or so, so no one need feel they can’t spare the time. If we’ve done some work for you in the last couple of months and you didn’t receive a survey request, just let us know and we’ll be happy to send one out to you (although I think and hope that everyone’s had one!)

Transcription for PhDs – don’t leave it too late

If you’re doing a PhD with qualitative research interviews, then it’s very likely that you’re going to need to transcribe them or have them transcribed. That might be something you know in the back of your mind, but perhaps you’re thinking you might as well get all the interviews conducted first and then worry about the pesky business of transcribing them.

Having worked in transcription for the past ten years, and also having done a PhD of my own, I can assure you that is not the best way to go about it! There are quite a few hoops you’ll need to jump through before you can get the transcription done, and the sooner you think about, the easier it will be.

Let’s tackle those hoops one by one – and if you have any thoughts on things I haven’t covered here, feel free to comment.

1. Ethics

If you’re doing qualitative research you’ve probably already discovered that ethics is  minefield! Your ethics committee may well tell you that, for purposes of confidentiality, you should transcribe all the interviews yourself. That’s fine if you’re a fast touch typist and you’ve got enough time built into your schedule to spend between four and seven times as long transcribing as the length of your interviews, but that might not be the case. Supposing you’ve conducted 20 one-hour interviews; transcription is going to take you at least 80 hours, or maybe more like 140 hours if you’re not expert (nearly 3 weeks of full-time work), which  could perhaps can be better spent doing something else… like analysis!

If the ethics policies allow you to outsource your transcription, they will probably have quite a number of provisos regarding data safety, and quite rightly too. You will need to make sure that your audio/video can be sent to your transcription service safely, so using an encrypted website, or sending by post on a passworded data stick for example. (All files sent to us via our website are encrypted.) You might also want your transcription files passworded on return, names of participants (and perhaps any personal names mentioned, or even place names) changed in the transcript, or blanked out, and perhaps return of the files through an encrypted website too, rather than email, to give an extra layer of protection.

The level of protection needed will depend, or we can hope that it will, on just how confidential the data is likely to be. So highly personal information, such as research into domestic violence, might require all of the above, whereas interviewing people about the culture of their business organisation might be rather less critical.

Here at Penguin Transcription we can assure you of complete confidentiality and are happy to discuss any ethics-related concerns with you. We have been working with researchers to provide transcription for ten years and have an excellent track record, as our testimonials show.

2. Type of transcription

It may seem obvious that if you’re taking the trouble to record all your interviews and get them transcribed, you want a ‘full verbatim transcription’ so that you don’t lose a single, precious word. However, unless you are working in counselling, psychology or linguistics, and actually studying the way speech is used, you are probably better off with what we call intelligent verbatim transcription.

Verbatim will include every single ‘um’, ‘er’, incomplete sentence, cough, laugh, sneeze and filler (such as ‘y’know, or know what I mean or kind of, often repeated many times in each sentence). As Phil Bayliss (2007) points out in his paper ‘Tinkering with Transcriptions’, downloadable from this page, not only is this type of transcript hard to read, but if you need to send it back to your interviewee for checking, they might find it downright embarrassing!

Intelligent verbatim transcription still includes exactly what’s said, including emotions such as laughter (although we’ll leave those out if you don’t want them), and (again, unless you’d rather not) we would type ‘I’m gonna get another one’ rather than ‘I’m going to get another one’ if that’s what’s said, but we leave out all the ums and ers and fillers and false starts and interruptions, making for a transcript that’s easier to read, easier to analyse, and not embarrassing for the interviewee.

Not only that, but it’s substantially faster to transcribe than a full verbatim text, and therefore also cheaper! So if you’re looking for affordable transcription services, consider intelligent verbatim.

3. The practicalities of recording for transcription 

There is a lot to think about, even at the recording stage, relating to transcribing your interviews later. There’s an article here about choosing the right recording equipment for your needs, and you will also need to give some thought to sound file types. We’re happy to discuss any of this with you, even before your project starts, at Penguin Transcription.

Then there’s the seemingly obvious stuff, such as don’t put the microphone too far from the people speaking, don’t stick a batch of papers on top of the recorder by mistake and try not to eat while talking as it will make you hard to understand! (I say ‘seemingly’ obvious because over the ten years I’ve been transcribing I’ve come across all these problems and more.)

Sometimes, for all sorts of reasons, recording in a noisy cafe, or a room with the TV on in the background, screaming kids or the washing machine going full tilt, is unavoidable. If that’s the case, so be it, but if you can avoid anything like this, it’s well worth doing, as the transcript that comes out at the other end of the process will be of much higher quality, with far fewer ‘inaudible’ markings etc.

4. Outsourcing transcription

As yet there is no transcription ‘magic bullet’ that allows you (or us) to feed your audio into a machine and get typed text out. Speech recognition is of no use in an interview or group context, as it needs to learn to recognise different voices.

It takes a fully trained and competent transcriptionist around four hours per hour of recording, depending on recording quality, so for an hour’s worth of transcription you need to pay for four hours of a transcriber’s time. Just something to bear in mind! And that time will increase for verbatim or if there are significant issues with the recording e.g. background noise.

Outsourcing transcription is not just about price, however; it’s about quality. At least it is if you don’t want to waste too much time going through and redoing it!  I won’t pretend – we’re not the cheapest out there. (We’re also not the most expensive!) The reason people keep on coming back to us is that we can provide the quality transcription they need. We have recently had two customers leave us because they found a cheaper alternative, and come back within a month because the cheaper alternative was not working out.

However, there are things that you can do to help us, and that will keep the costs down! Have a look at my article on finding an affordable transcription service, for some advice on this.

I hope this post has given you some food for thought, rather than cause for panic, and if you’d like to discuss any transcription requirements with us, please do give us a call on 01953 880206 or fill in our quote request form here.