Are You Using Upspeak Strategically?

We’ve all heard that upspeak (also known as upward intonation) can make us sound and appear insecure or doubtful by casting our statements as questions. For that reason, executive speech coaches encourage presenters to avoid upspeak, especially when introducing their name, company, or ask of their audience. But ending our thoughts on an upnote can also help us communicate more effectively and even intimidate our audience. In this blog, we explore how to effectively use this often misunderstood speech pattern.

Upspeak signals we have more to say

When interviewing experts for my journalism, I often hear subjects using upspeak as they gather their thoughts and rattle off a list of details, examples, or circumstances. In this case, the upward inflection tells me: Keep listening. I’ve more to share. I’m not done yet. I’ll use a brief example to illustrate and italicize the upnotes:

I began paying attention to upspeak when I noticed so many of us use the pattern, even when feeling confident. For instance, we can signal we have more to say, or, we want to sound open to new ideas, or, we pick up the pattern from our regional dialect. (Notice the last phrase ends on a down note to signal the thought’s complete.)

Upspeak helps us say we’re open to new ideas

As the earlier example hinted, upspeak also helps signal to our audience the idea isn’t final—we can do things differently, i.e. your way. We hear this pattern from parents and caregivers of young children. For instance, So, we’re going to the park for lunch? We’re going to the lake? (By upnoting the suggested location, the speaker says: or, do you have a different idea? Let me know because I value your input; we can go wherever you want.)

In business, speakers can strategically use the pattern in the same way. In fact, leaders may deliberately use upspeak when presenting an idea to a team to show vs. tell the audience they’re not authoritative—upspeak in those situations says subtly: I’m open. You tell me whether this idea remains good. Here’s one more example:

We’ll alert the client of this disconnect at the next meeting? I’ll tell them ahead of time? We leave things be? (Note: If the speaker ended the last idea on a down note, that tactic subtly hints to the audience that not alerting the client of the disconnect remains the speaker’s choice, but they seek your input on the earlier options, too.)

Upspeak shows authority

A less popular but also tactical way speakers use upspeak comes by adding a tag on an upnote. This approach turns the statement into a question, but by insisting the audience affirms the idea, the tone and communication style starts to sound demeaning. I’ll illustrate with a few short examples:

-We’ll take this problem to the director, yeah?

-You’ll have the updated report to me by the end of day, correct?

-We’re clear about these differences, right?

While the speaker may feel powerful when using this communication approach, I recommend avoiding, or at least use sparingly. Many communicators I’ve encountered and coach find this kind of tagging off putting and irritating, especially when the speaker tags repetitively and acts cold in other ways, too.

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