I’ve transcribed thousands of interviews in my life.
During university, I paid for school (and, let’s be real, mostly beer) by transcribing hundreds of discovery calls for a legal transcription company.
It was honestly the worst part of both jobs.
Transcribing interviews is a chore. But it’s a necessity when you’re quoting people for an article or legal case.
Accuracy is important. And for years, the best way to guarantee that was manual, time-consuming, back-straining work (a single hour of audio can take the average person three to five hours to transcribe—yikes).
Thankfully, technology has advanced a lot. But a lot of people (myself included when I first started as a professional transcriber and writer) don’t know how to transcribe an interview.
It’s simpler than you might think.
Tips on How to Transcribe an Interview From a Former Journalist
What is transcribing?
Transcribing is the process of turning spoken words from audio or video into written text. This is useful for businesses, the legal and medical fields, or for personal reasons. It includes typing out (manually or with software) what's said in court, during interviews, or from voice recordings.
How to prepare to do a transcription of an interview
Whether you’re an amateur journalist preparing for your first big interview, a content marketer working on a customer case study, or a hiring manager speaking with a prospective employee, here’s how to write a transcript of an interview.
Step 1: Determine the Purpose
Why are you transcribing an interview? Are you a journalist? A legal transcriber? Is it for personal use or research? Are you going to share the transcript with someone? Are you going to publish it somewhere else?
Answering these questions will help you determine the format of your transcript.
- Verbatim transcriptions are when you write down every word (this is most common in legal settings or when you need a 100% accurate record of a conversation)
- Intelligent verbatim transcriptions are similar to verbatim transcriptions, but you don’t have to include every “umm” or “ahhh”—the goal is to capture what was said but make it readable to another person or audience (don’t be afraid to fix grammar here, unless it changes the meaning or delivery of the speaker)
- Edited transcriptions still capture what was said, but sometimes the information is summarized for easy consumption—think of a job interview transcribed by a hiring manager and shared with a CEO who doesn’t need to read a full transcript
Step 2: Use Tools to Speed Up the Process
But if you prefer to do it manually, you’ll need a computer, a word processor (Google Docs or Microsoft Word), headphones to playback the interview (use noise-canceling headphones to help you focus), and hardware or software to play the recording.
Step 3: Set Aside the Right Amount of Time
Transcription software can transcribe an interview in minutes. But if you’re doing it manually, you’ll want to set aside at least an hour or more to transcribe your interview, depending on how long it is and how many speakers are involved.
How to transcribe an interview
Before you’re even at the transcription phase, there are a few things you can do in the actual interview itself to set you up for success.
First, check that your recording equipment is working. (Use a high-quality device to capture the call—the mic on your iPhone or Macbook should do.)
Do a quick test to ensure everything is working, and have a backup in case anything goes wrong. (As a journalist, I’d normally record interviews on my iPhone and a handheld Sony IC recorder just in case, but now I use Bloks and the voice memos app on my phone.)
Next, choose a quiet location to reduce any background noise.
If your interviewee mumbles or speaks too fast, gently encourage them to speak up for the recorder and a bit more clearly, if possible.
And if something they say isn’t clear, don’t be afraid to ask them for clarification—it’ll prevent you from second-guessing or calling them back after the fact.
Once you’re ready to transcribe your interview, here’s what to keep in mind:
1. Listen carefully
If you’re transcribing your interview manually, you don’t want to miss anything important. Turn up the volume of the recording, and don’t be afraid to rewind the interview or slow it down to make sure you catch everything that’s being said.
2. Transcribe verbatim (if necessary)
If you’re doing a verbatim or intelligent verbatim transcript, you want to type out every word that’s being said (you can always edit it for grammar later if you need to).
Again, if you miss anything or are unclear about what’s being said, rewind the recording. If it gets to be too much, take a break and come back to your transcription later—transcribing is a marathon, not a sprint.
3. Start with a draft
Professional transcribers will often do a first pass and then listen a second time to make sure they didn’t miss or misconstrue anything. (When I was a legal transcriber, sometimes I’d even listen back three or four times, and I almost always caught something I hadn’t noticed before.) Make edits as you go to save time.
4. Format the transcript
This is one of the most important parts, especially if your interview transcript is being used as an official record or shared with someone else.
Here’s an example of how to format an interview transcript:
- Include a title
- Note the date and time of the interview
- List the names of all interviewees (include their job roles and titles, if applicable)
- Write a brief introduction to provide context for the interview
- Use a readable font like Arial, Calibri, or Times New Roman (11-12 point font size is the standard) and use single or 1.5 line spacing
- Identify speakers with labels (use initials after the first mention of their name) and bold or italicize the font to make it stand out
Aside from the basic interview transcription formatting above, here are a few more tips that will help make your transcript clearer and more legible:
- Brackets [ ] indicate notes and words that aren’t present on the recording and are added to the transcript (usually for clarification)
- Use an em dash (—) to indicate a hanging phrase resulting from an incomplete sentence, a parenthetic expression or statement, an interruption by another speaker, a statement that resumes after an interruption, or a pause from a speaker
- Refrain from using an ellipsis (...) because that usually indicates information has been left out or omitted
- Delete “ahh”s, “umm”s, “like”s, and “you know”s unless it’s a verbatim transcript
- Put nonverbal sounds or events in parenthesis—e.g., (laughs), (cries), (looks around)
- When you can’t understand a word or phrase, add (??) or (unintelligible) after the word (consider including a timestamp so that someone else can listen back and see if they understand it)
How to transcribe faster
Don’t have hours to spend transcribing interviews? Here are a few more tips that should help you transcribe interviews faster:
Tip #1: Use software
Use Bloks to transcribe and summarize your interview. Unlike other transcription software, it’s entirely bot-free and works with any videoconferencing software.
Just download it, and it will automatically transcribe your next call.
Tip #2: Type faster
This is obvious, but the faster you type, the faster you can transcribe. The more you transcribe, the faster you’ll get.
Tip #3: Transcribe words phonetically
If you can’t understand a word or phrase, type it out phonetically and revisit it later instead of rewinding your interview endlessly.
Tip #4: Use a template
Create or download a template that pre-populates fields like the title, list of attendees, date, and interview purpose so that it’s easier to fill out your transcript and begin transcribing.
Tip #5: Keep a glossary
If the interview includes industry-specific terms, acronyms, or jargon, have a glossary handy in case you need to look anything up. (I found this particularly useful as a legal transcriber because I hadn't heard most of the terms before.)
And that’s it! Now you know how to transcribe an interview.