Down With Upspeak

Clueless. That’s what people sound like when they have a habit of making statements sound like questions, when they end their sentences with an upward inflection, practically begging their listeners for confirmation and validation.

This phenomenon, known in linguistic language as high-rising terminal, “uptalk,” or “upspeak,” robs the speaker of their confidence and credibility, making it difficult to be captivating or compelling, persuasive or trustworthy.

And unfortunately we can hear this phenomenon all around us, practiced by Valley Girls and frat boys, from the C-suite, on the radio and television airwaves, via Kim Kardashian and Lena Dunham, and even from podiums and pulpits.

“The short answer is no one knows,” says Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, when asked by the BBC where – and when – this all began. “It has been suggested that this distribution of rising inflection in sentences in northern England, Scotland and Northern Ireland probably had something to do with the Scandinavian influence there, but that’s just a hypothesis.”

Less persuasive, more pervasive

What lots of linguists do agree on is it is not the language of business and power, but a lot of people are using it, and it may be even increasing in popularity.

Sharyn Collins, a voice coach and elocution expert, places the blame on our shrinking attention spans.

The rising tones we so often hear are due to people trying to divert their audience’s attention away from their mobile phone.

She believes the rising tones we so often hear are due to people trying to divert their audience’s attention away from their mobile phone.

“People are checking as they speak to make sure you’re paying attention,” she says.

In fact, by using upspeak they may be drawing attention to their voices, and not in a good way.

The Voice

When it comes to preparing presentations, most people spend the majority of their time on the content, the words.

That’s a mistake, according to UCLA professor emeritus Albert Mehrabian, who developed one of the most well-known rules when it comes to communication. 

His seminal research shows 38% of messages are processed based on your tone of voice, your delivery, making how you say something more important than what you are actually saying.

38% of messages are processed based on your tone of voice, your delivery, making how you say something more important than what you are actually saying.

There is a direct connection between how we use our voices and how the world views us.

Your voice is a signature, a unique and powerful part of your professional identity and brand.

Does your voice enhance your image – or undermine it?

Get rid of upspeak, and you’ll avoid having other people wonder, “Are you asking me or telling me?”

Successful executive presence

Executives surveyed by the Center for Talent Innovation, a think-tank focusing on maximizing talent potential, identified three core components of a successful executive presence:

1) Appearance

2) Communication skills

3) Gravitas

Economist Sylvia Anne Hewlett, founding President of the Center for Work-Life Policy, says successful executives must develop the ability to be clear and concise, to “command a room,” so they can quickly create emotional connections.

When it comes to looking like a leader and sounding like a leader, there’s little leeway for error. Hewlett says research shows that people make decisive judgments about the credibility and trustworthiness of others in as little as 250 milliseconds.

People make decisive judgments about the credibility and trustworthiness of others in as little as 250 milliseconds.

Developing your best, authentic voice that serves you – and your organization – well, doesn’t come easy. It takes practice and preparation, and often some specialized coaching.

“All successful executives work at it,” says Hewlett.

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