Is That a Question or a Statement? How You Speak Matters

Woman's mouth and a microphone
June 25, 2013


You don’t have to be a public speaker to pay attention to your voice. Before an interview, salary negotiation, or presentation, we are sure to look professional and have our talking points down — but what about how we’re going to say it? Our voice is something we can control, so we need to stop ignoring it.

Speak lower. Speak slower. Speak louder.

When I speak in front of a group, this is feedback I might receive. That is because I’ve picked up many of the vocal patterns of women like me. I have a high voice, and at the end of my sentences I often go into a higher register, like I’m asking a question. See the first 20 seconds of Zooey Deschanel on Katie Couric’s talk show (below). This phenomenon is often referred to as “upspeak” or “uptalk.”

Seeing it in video feels cringe-worthy when you listen for it, but thousands of people will watch the show without a second thought to the way the women spoke, so why does it even matter? Christine Jahnke, a Washington, D.C.-based speech coach, spells it out like this: “Upspeak makes everything you’re saying sound like a question rather than a declarative statement, thus the speaker comes across as hesitant, and what they’re not doing is speaking with authority.”

Deschanel’s and Couric’s use of uptalk in the show was friendly, but if women are employing uptalk without considering the circumstances, they might be giving off the wrong impression. Let’s face it, the habit has a bad reputation. Magazines and blogs, colleagues, and even my peers have no issue calling the vocal pattern, like, so annoying. That is why it is important to understand the way you speak.

“When we think about the voice overall, it’s a good idea to avoid repetitive patterns,” says Jahnke. “Audiences pick up on repetitive patterns and they start to anticipate them so much that they become distracted from what you are trying to say.”

Jahnke has worked with women from all walks of life, including coaching Michelle Obama and teaching a workshop at the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL). Jahnke gives great advice for why ladies might upspeak when we shouldn’t and what we can do to edit it out.

Reason 1: In any kind of high-pressure situation where you might get nervous, you tend to speak more quickly, your vocal chords tighten, and your voice starts to rise. You often won’t even realize it is happening.

Try this: Jahnke recommends a great way to relax. Take a deep breath through the nose, hold it for two counts, then exhale audibly. It also warms up the vocal chords. Continue to breathe throughout your presentation.

Reason 2: We are looking for affirmation or trying to solicit feedback.

Try this: “There are better ways to take the temperature of the room without making every phrase sound like a question,” says Jahnke. “Be more direct and ask the individual or audience, ‘What do you think?’ or ‘Do you agree?’”

Extra credit: In her keynote speech at NCCWSL 2013, Rachel Simmons suggested young women start their sentences with the phrase “this is what I think.” That way the apologizing and unsure tones she’s witnessed don’t fit into what you’re going to say next.

When you give yourself a disclaimer before presenting an idea or use uptalk to facilitate feedback, you’re giving the wrong impression. It takes a conscious effort to break ineffective habits and practice to develop a style that works for you. Jahnke suggests women video tape themselves speaking. That way we can see (and hear) for ourselves what others are hearing.

Then, find a safe environment where you can practice and receive constructive feedback. I loved Jahnke’s idea of a once-a-month brown bag lunch with your colleagues or professional network where you practice giving your elevator speech, provide feedback, tape each other, and talk about it.

“You can read about it, but you have to do it,” Jahnke says. And the more you practice, the more effective your presentations and negotiations will be.

Women Who Speak with Authority

We live in an exciting time with more women role models than ever before. We have three female Supreme Court justices, more women than ever in Congress, more women in the president’s political cabinet, and growing female leadership in business. There are a lot of examples of great women leaders we can look to for examples of great communication. Christine Jahnke, author of The Well-Spoken Woman: Your Guide to Looking and Sounding Your Best, shared her take on some of the best women speakers of our time.

Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg

Facebook Chief Operating Officer and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg speaks with great candor. Watch her speak »

Photo by World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Barbara Jordan

Barbara Jordan

It has been said that Rep. Barbara Jordan’s voice made it sound “as if the gates of heaven had opened.” Watch her speak »

Photo by Warren K. Leffler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Melinda Gates

Melinda Gates

Melinda Gates’ work at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is complex, but she always speaks from a personal perspective about the people she’s met around the world. Her storytelling connects with people. Watch her speak »

Photo by U.S. Agency for International Development (Ms. Melinda Gates Uploaded by Elitre) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Indra Nooyi

Indra Nooyi

PepsiCo Chair and CEO Indra Nooyi gets right to the point and is very funny. Watch her speak »

Photo courtesy of PepsiCo

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks with authority. Watch her speak »

Photo by Frank Plitt [CC-BY-3.0-de], via Wikimedia Commons

Ann Richards

Ann Richards

Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards spoke about universal values that resonated widely. Watch her speak »

Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Marie Lindberg By:   |   June 25, 2013

1 Comment

  1. Avatar Marie Lindberg says:

    In light of Wendy Davis’s inspiring stand in Texas this week, New York Times’ columnist Gail Collins wrote an op-ed that contains a disturbing story about women’s voices: Take notice:

    “A few years back, Davis told me about an incident during a debate when she had asked a veteran Republican a question about a pending bill. Dodging her query, he said: “I have trouble hearing women’s voices.”

    This attitude is unacceptable. We need women in office not only so they can stand up for our rights, but also so they can take down the old boys’ network that made this man think it was okay to speak to his colleague that way. While I hope women improve their voices to become more confident and effective leaders and communicators, I also hope no woman is ever ashamed of her voice.

    Here’s the full column:

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