How to use the Dictate feature instead of typing in Microsoft Word

Whether you're a bad typist or have a hurt thumb, you can still interact with Microsoft Word using its new Dictate feature.

Man dictating into phone and computer

Image: iStock/Prostock-Studio

The art of dictation and transcription used to draw up images of someone recording a message and then a second person wearing earphones and pressing a foot pedal to control a recording device, while turning the recorded word from the first person into a typed document. It took two people—two! I know that vision exposes my age: I've seen technology change so much in my lifetime. Never did I imagine that someday I would simply speak, and computer software would instantly transcribe my words for me. In this article, I'll show you how easy it is to use Microsoft Word's dictation feature in the desktop version, which became available in August 2020. It's easy, but it's new, so many of you might not know about it. 

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The purpose of this article is to introduce you to the difference between Word desktop and web—the web version has more functionality at this time. We'll discuss what versions do what for you and then learn how to use Dictate in the desktop version. In a subsequent article, I'll show you how to use the web version. 

I'm using Microsoft 365 on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but you can use older versions. There's no demonstration file; you won't need one. Dictate is available in the desktop version; a more powerful feature, Transcribe, is available in the web version.

My early years with technology

At this point, I want to share a bit about my past with technology so you can understand why I find this feature so exciting. I was a music major and woefully unprepared for the technical age that was coming. However, I think training in music is a lot like the computer sciences that are studied today (those courses didn't even exist when I was in college). One of my first employers purchased a desktop computer—you had to load DOS, then load software, and then load your program—for a bit over $5,000. They purchased only one for the entire firm of 150. Employees would enter their data, hit Calc, leave, and come back later. It was a bit of a spaghetti-junction mess. I saw an opportunity and took it. I offered to enter the data, hit Calc, and deliver the reports. It caught on. 

SEE: 5 transcription apps to make your work life easier (TechRepublic)

Why do I tell you this? Because at no time during those early years did I imagine the advances I've seen. My grandmother went from horse-drawn wagons to men traveling to the moon. I've gone from telephones connected by a wire to the wall and sharing the same number with strangers to every person in the household having their own phone and number that goes with them everywhere and plays music and TV on demand! (I thought my turquoise transistor radio was cool.) 

Back to dictating: We've gone from someone speaking into a microphone to record and then someone listening to that recording to transcribe what they heard into written words to: "Computer, do my work."

How to dictate and transcribe at the same time

Before we go any further, we need to define a few terms. Dictation is the act of recording a message, and transcription is the act of turning that recorded message into a print document. Word does both, but the versions aren't the same. Word's desktop version lets you dictate the message and automatically transcribes for you. As you speak, Word creates the print document. But that leaves out the recorded message on some type of medium--cassette tape and so on. Word's web version does that, but we won't discuss that in this article. 

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Getting started is simple: You need Word and a microphone. To begin, click Dictate's dropdown (in the Voice group on the Home tab). From the dropdown, choose a language, if necessary. Word defaults to your system language setting. When you're ready to start recording, click the Dictate icon. 

Give Word a second to get going; you'll see a red dot on the icon when you can record, as shown in Figure A. Talk until you're done and then click Dictate to stop recording. Word turns your audible words into text as you speak. You'll hear a noise that lets you know recording has started and stopped. You can also use the Alt+` keystroke to turn dictation on and off.

Figure A

wordtranscribe-a.jpg

  Word records when the red dot is visible.

It isn't perfect; Figure A also shows what happens when you start speaking too soon; notice that the first few words are missing, and Word even misinterprets a few. You'll get better with practice:

  • Speak clearly.
  • Speak slowly—not so slow you fall asleep, but give Word a fair chance!

While you're dictating, use words for punctuation: comma, period, new paragraph, open quote, close quote, uppercase, and so on. Word will transcribe them (you'll see them on screen), but Word then inserts the appropriate character and removes the transcribed words. Edit the converted text as you normally would. Dictate works in all views by Read view. It's incredibly easy and flexible.

SEE: 4 tips for working more efficiently with footnotes and endnotes in Word (TechRepublic)

Stay tuned

It's a bit unusual, but this feature offers more in the web version. You can upload an existing audio file for Word to transcribe. This feature is great for brainstorming and meetings. In a future article, we'll take a look at this new and exciting feature.

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