Down with UpTalk: The Viral Voice Trend Threatening Business Leaders’ Credibility

I’ve never sat down with a client whose communications goal was to sound unsure. No one steps up to a lectern hoping to diminish their credibility and lose confidence with the audience. But a simple voice inflection can do just that, and it’s regrettably becoming common in today’s business word. It’s called UpTalk, and it’s time to take it down.

What is UpTalk?

Uptalk is when you raise intonation at the end of a declarative sentence making it sound like a question.

“I am Michelle Zucatti from 3D Communications, and I’m here to talk about UpTalk.”

“I am Michelle Zucatti?  From 3D Communications?” And I’m here to talk about UpTalk?”

Did you read those differently? The second line sounds like I’m unsure of who I am and why I am speaking in the first place – that’s UpTalk. Not a good way to entice your audience to lean in, engage, and want to hear more. And the only difference is a question mark!

So why do speakers do it?

Traditionally, UpTalk has been associated with being young, timid, and – often – female. But over the years, this so-called “Valley Girl” voice trend has spread to other demographics and can now be heard anywhere from the morning news to the Senate floor. Some think it comes from insecurity, and others say UpTalk is simply a learned bad habit. It has become so pervasive and harshly criticized that some linguists have come to its defense – arguing that UpTalk is a tool that builds consensus with your audience or indicates that you have more to say. But even if UpTalk does have some utility in conversation, when used chronically, it’s perceived as unprofessional, exposing one’s insecurities.

Why should you care?

Research shows that our voices matter. A British study by Publisher Pearson of 700 managers showed that more than 70% said UpTalk was “annoying”, and 85% said it is a “clear indicator” of insecurity. According to a U.S. study of 120 executives’ speeches conducted by Quantified Communications, the sound of a speaker’s voice matters twice as much as the content of the message. TWICE as much! If you’re not insecure, unprofessional or annoying, why let your voice work against you?

What can I do about it?

The good news is you can stop using UpTalk by following these steps.

  1. Recognize the problem. Although most people can identify UpTalk, many aren’t sure if they use it themselves. Record yourself giving a presentation or participating in a meeting with colleagues. Pay attention to how you end sentences. If it sounds? Like you’re looking for approval? After everything you say? You’re using UpTalk.

  2. Recognize WHEN you do it. You may not use UpTalk when delivering a written speech but may slip into it when you feel more vulnerable or unprepared –when pitching new business or responding to challenging questions. Those are the exact times you DON’T want to sound unsure. 

  3. Practice bringing your voice down. Once you have identified your patterns of UpTalk, practice delivering similar messages and focus on bringing your voice down at the end. To avoid becoming monotone, emphasize the second to last word in your sentence. A natural-sounding vocal variety will keep listeners engaged without confusing them with UpTalk.

  4. Be mindful of UpTalk. At first you will have to think about correcting UpTalk. Progress will come from being prepared. Script and practice your presentations and role-play potential Q&A. This will allow you to anticipate UpTalk and intentionally fix it – creating a new habit of communicating with certainty, credibility, and confidence.

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