by Tom Kaneshige

iPhone Tip: Siri, I Command Thee

Oct 31, 2011 3 mins
Consumer Electronics iPhone

Take a cue from Star Trek’s Captain Picard on how to speak to Siri clearly and logically for the best results.


In the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew of the Starship Enterprise would command the computer to do all sorts of things. The way they ordered the computer to replicate a beverage, for instance, revealed a little bit about their personalities.

Here’s how the analytical Captain Jean-Luc Picard would say it: “Tea, Earl Grey, hot.” The order descends logically, starting with the main subject followed by the modifiers, which presumably makes it easier for the computer to understand. Tea. What kind of tea? Earl Grey. How would you like it? Hot.

Here’s how the touchy-feely Counselor Deanna Troi would say it: “Cup of hot chocolate.” When the modifier comes before the noun, the computer must listen to the entire string and then figure it out.

I hadn’t thought about this for years until I got an iPhone 4S, which has a voice-enabled artificial intelligence engine, called Siri, built into iOS 5 and running on the fast A5 dual-core chip. I soon found that the way I commanded Siri to perform tasks was the difference between success and failure.

In other words, Picard’s logical method worked the best.

First off, lead your command with a verb. This lets Siri know what app or function it should open. If you don’t open with a verb, Siri tends to conduct a Web search on the topic, usually finding nearest places with the topic in the name. It’s important to note I’m talking about commands, not questions for Siri to answer.

Next, get subject keywords up front. Like Picard, the main subject should be one of the first words you say after the verb, followed by the modifiers. This stream of logic gives Siri a direct path. Here are some verb-subject combinations (along with the modifiers in parenthesis):

“Remind me (to take out the trash at 7 p.m.)” sends Siri to the Reminder app. “Read text (from my sister)” sends Siri to the Messages app. “Play the song (Viva la Vida)” sends Siri to the Music app. “Start timer (for two minutes)” sends Siri to a timer function.

Use the verb “schedule” and the keyword “appointment” followed by a stream of modifiers to enter an appointment in the Calendar app. Consider this Picard-esque command sequence: “Schedule an appointment (for tomorrow at noon called coffee with Joe).”

Scheduling an appointment in your Calendar app can be a little tricky. Siri will stop listening if it senses a pause in your speech, which usually happens during your long list of modifiers. This can be very frustrating. So you’ll need to practice commands in a consistent way to avoid pauses.

Whatever you do, please avoid the dramatic pauses and wordy speeches of Picard’s predecessor, Captain James Kirk, played by William Shatner. This will be very frustrating not just for Siri, but for anyone within ear shot.