I have a confession to make: I’m an “uptalker.” (And I’m not the only one out there.) Uptalk, or “upward inflection,” is the speech habit of ending sentences like questions: the pitch of your voice trails up at the end.
“The Millennial generation is known for uptalking, and there is a lot of debate as to when this uptalk habit began,” says Dr. Susan Miller, a sought-after vocal trainer and an assistant professor of Otolaryngology at the Georgetown University Hospital. “Did it begin in the ‘60s in Australia or did it begin in the ‘90s in California with the ‘Valley Girl’ speech pattern?”
If you’re picturing Clueless, you’re correct. But men uptalk, too.
“Partly this is how we’ve learned to talk. We learn from older ‘uptalkers’—brothers and sisters and friends,” says Kim Dower, also known as “Kim from LA,” a Los Angeles-based media trainer who has coached many authors, celebrities, and business leaders, including Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
According to Dower, “Uptalking implies a lack of certainty in what we’re saying—more like floating a suggestion than stating a fact—somewhere in between a question and a statement. It conveys a lack of authority, knowledge, depth, and experience.”
So for young professionals, entrepreneurs, and anyone else interested in communicating their expertise around their work, uptalk creates an obstacle to being taken seriously.
Miller says, “Women are referred to me by their employers, and the employers will say, ‘She’s great, but she sounds young.’ With guys who uptalk, people say, ‘He sounds uncertain. He’s not very confident.’”
When we speak with certainty, we’re perceived as being knowledgeable and competent—whether we’re talking about our most recent work project or our opinion of the latest iPhone update. We can use our voice and intonation as a tool to influence people and situations.
Ready to begin that intonation makeover? Let’s go.
Record yourself talking
According to Dower, the best strategy is to record yourself and listen to how it sounds.
“The moment you hear it, you know why it doesn’t work,” says Dower. “Say the sentence: ‘It’s time for us to get started on this project.’ Then say it in ‘uptalk.’ Then say it ‘normally.’ Hear the difference. As with everything we do, the first step in changing a habit is to watch ourselves doing it. When we hear it, we’ll be motivated to change.”
Note: it’s okay—normal, even—if you cringe at the way your voice sounds recorded.
“No one likes the way their voice sounds,” says Miller. “It’s because as we’re talking, we hear ourselves through the bones in our head. So everybody thinks their voice is lower. That’s why you sound different on a voicemail.”
Miller has her clients write down five statements and practice saying them with delicate conviction.
“You need to end the sentence as a fact. For example, ‘My name is Susan.’ I am very certain about what I’m saying. So if I am certain of what I’m saying, I’m going to remember to give air through that last word. I need to make sure that last word is heard.”
It may sound or feel a little bold at first, but hey—be bold.
Record a phone conversation
With permission from a friend, significant other, or family member, record a phone conversation (there are several good apps—I like TapeACall Pro). Start an involved conversation. Then listen to the recording.
Miller says, “That’s another way to catch yourself doing it: when you’re thinking more about what you’re saying to someone than you are of how you sound.”
Erin Matson, a Washington, D.C.-based writer and the co-founder of Reproaction, a buzzy non-profit that advocates for women’s reproductive rights, says standing during phone conversations is always a good idea.
“One thing that really helps for important phone conversations is to stand up,” says Matson. “You automatically sound more confident—and start to learn how to transfer that to your sitting voice.”
Break old habits
Consider if you use upward inflection as a strategy to temper a big ask or a strong viewpoint. Dower reveals, “We do it when we’re not sure whether the person is going to accept what we’re saying—it sounds like a suggestion, when in fact it’s a statement.”
Miller has had patients suggest that they started uptalking in high school, as an unintended byproduct of doing so many group projects. “I’ve asked clients, ‘Why do you think you uptalk?’ And some people say, ‘Maybe it’s because in high school, we did all team activities. We didn’t want to act like we knew the absolute answer.’”
Matson says, “There’s a whole body of linguistics that tracks how women in the United States tend to use communication styles that seek consensus. Uptalk is an extension of that, especially among younger adults.”
If you want to be heard, speak. If you need to disagree, disagree. No matter what point you’re making, you’ll invite a more favorable outcome if you sound eloquent and polished when you speak.
Don’t forget to breathe
Come to understand your voice as both an instrument and a business tool.
“We can have a voice we like,” says Miller. “It’s an instrument, and we can all learn to play it.”
As in music, speaking well is inseparable from the practice of taking good breaths.
“When we speak, breath has to come from below, from your lower ribcage,” says Miller. “When someone wants to project their voice, if they take a sucky breath instead of a relaxed, lower breath, then their throat tightens, so that sound—their voice—is resonating through a piccolo instead of a clarinet or saxophone.”
Voice is an area where we have great influence over how others perceive us. We have the power to maximize this flexible, adaptable medium through which we communicate: to influence, to share our thoughts, and to own our expertise.
Photo credit: Lauren Kallen