Monday, September 19, 2011

Do you end sentences with an upward inflection? 3 ways to sound sure of yourself

I just listened to an interview in which a woman physician was trying to correct misinformation that's been in the media recently about her specialty--a serious task, and one that required her to sound credible, accurate and sure of her facts. Instead, she sounded unsure of herself and as if she were trying out answers rather than putting them across convincingly, all because of one vocal issue: An upward inflection at the end of most of her sentences.

You know how it sounds. That upward inflection makes every sentence sound like a question, whether you wanted to ask a question or were striving for something else.

Vocal coach Kate Peters, in a guest post on this blog about your vocal image, helps define the deflection and the role it plays in creating your image as a speaker:
Cadence is the general inflection at the end of spoken sentences. This inflection can lead people to make conclusions about one’s gender, geographic origin, as well as one’s openness and flexibility. According to Deborah Tannen, we hear a downward cadence as “closed” or “final,” with the extreme being “controlling.” Conversely, we hear an upward cadence as “open” and “flexible,” with the extreme being “indecisive.” Perhaps that’s why New Yorkers are stereotyped as abrupt and Californians as flaky!
The combination of the upward inflection, along with starting sentences with "so," have come to be known as Valley Girl voice, although it's thought that at least the "so" part began with engineers from that area.  Over time, the Valley Girl vocal image has hardened as one that's less serious and smart than you may want to appear. Some listeners find this indecisive-sounding tone decidedly annoying. You may not be questioning what you're saying, but that's what it sounds like.

Like any other vocal habit that you may be using over and over again, frequent repetition of that upward inflection in the same place in most sentences makes your listeners start to anticipate its use, or even count how many times you use it...which means they're no longer listening to what you are saying. It's also something you can correct, with practice. Here are 3 ways to curb that upward cadence and get back to sounding decisive and sure of yourself:
  • Correct real questions first:  I've had success asking some clients to change the way they state actual questions before we tackle these unintentional question-like inflections by working to use a neutral or downward cadence at the end of a question. It's the difference between saying "Are you going to do THAT?" or "Are you going to DO that?" with the upward inflection coming where the word is capitalized. There is, after all, more than one way to ask a question.
  • Analyze before you emphasize:  In any sentence, you have lots of choices about which words deserve the emphasis. If you're just winging it when it comes to emphasis, take the time to think through your statements and choose the words that would benefit the most from extra attention, then place it there. Using the upward inflection is often a habit--which means you're not putting much thought into it. Careful emphasis, by contrast, conveys in a subtle way that you know precisely what you're saying and how you want it to be heard, and that's a much more confident and decisive image.
  • Run with the urge to vary your vocals for emphasis. Cadence is one of the ways speakers can add audible interest and help the audience follow along--but using the same cadence over and over skips the variety needed to hold interest. Instead of an automatic upward inflection, practice using different techniques to add vocal variety: Use pauses, "pop" certain words with louder/higher/lower tones, use forceful or delicate levels of emphasis. It helps to do this by marking up a text at first, then reading from it, until you're comfortable varying your vocal tone.
Do you use an upward inflection at the end of sentences, or just find it annoying?

Related posts:  So, do you start sentences with so? If so...

What's your vocal image? Part I

Vocalizing tips from an NPR intern

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