Say it like you mean it.

Say it like you mean it.

This is the story I tell most about my grandfather.

After he retired from sitting on the bench, my grandfather donated his time to the Kentucky School for the Blind. Way back in the days before Audible.com, he voiced audiobooks for the printing house for the blind.

Sometimes he chauffeured his grandkids around town, and when he did, he loved to pontificate about what he’d learned in life: in marriage, on the bench, at the school for the blind.

My grandfather was a well-educated man with a large vocabulary, but when he began voicing audiobooks he still came across words he didn’t know with startling frequency. When he didn’t know the word—or, more to the point, how to pronounce it—he floundered a bit. The recording tech would hear the hesitation in his voice. The tape (it was a tape back then) would be stopped, and rewound, and he would begin again—sometimes way back at the beginning of the chapter.

He loved to voice the books, but he didn’t love to re-read the chapters—especially when a quick look at the dictionary revealed he’d pronounced it correctly, if hesitantly. Once he protested at the waste of time—I pronounced it correctly; why re-record?—and the tech set him straight: “Nobody will believe you when you use that tone of voice. You sound so unsure of yourself, like you’re asking a question: why should they trust you?”

After that, he changed his ways. He concentrated on making his voice strong, sure, and confident, even when—no, especially when—he wasn’t feeling it.

Of all the stories I know about my grandfather, this is the one that comes up all the time.

I thought about my grandfather last week when I was reading The Confidence Code, the new business book that addresses why a “confidence gap” still exists between men and women, and how we can close it. It wasn’t exactly a page-turner, but it was packed with useful content. The book is written for and by women, but my grandfather would have heartily approved of the book’s practical advice.

One of my biggest takeaways from the book actually came from a man: a man who sounds just like my grandfather. His advice is this: “Banish upspeak.” 

Upspeak (sometimes called uptalk, or high rising terminal) is when your intonation rises at the end of a sentence, making a question out of a sentence that isn’t a question. Women do it all the time; men do it, too, though less frequently. It makes a big difference in how you’re perceived.

According to the professor in The Confidence Code, women use upspeak to gain approval. He says it’s like they’re saying, “Don’t challenge me because I’m not really saying anything; I’m just asking.” But it seldom achieves its desired ends. Instead, it reveals a lack of confidence, and we must sound confident if we want people to believe we actually mean what we say.

If, upon doing a quick mental check, you realize that you’re totally guilty of this self-sabotaging habit, don’t be too hard on yourself. After chatting with the professor, the hyper-qualified authors of The Confidence Code realized that they did it, too.

(I know I do it from time to time, and I’m trying to stop, but it’s mortifying to hear myself do it on podcasts.)

The wonderful advice from the upspeak-hating professor is this: “Say it with confidence, because if you don’t sound confident, why will anybody believe what you say?”

(He makes it sound so simple. Why, then, is it so hard?)

Upspeak is a hard habit to break. It’s a hard habit for me to break. (Present tense.) But I imagine you, too, are hyper-qualified for the tasks today will throw at you. And so I encourage you, for all our sakes, to say it like you mean it.

Because if you don’t sound confident, why will anybody believe what you say?

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35 comments

  1. Alix says:

    Have you read Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style”? It’s a great book, and this immediately made me think of their advice, ” If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loudly”!

    • Lin says:

      I did that once when I was ordering a dessert at a Greek Restaurant. I ordered Bak-la’-va in a very confident and loud tone. Well, the owner was taking my order–a Greek man, of course. I received a much more confident correction! He said, “It’s BAK-LA-VA’!” I hung my head, as a matter of respect, of course, and apologized in a nice, guilty tone of voice. It was my first and last Bak-la-va’! While it was extremely sweet, it had a minorly-bitter after-taste.

  2. kelli says:

    My dad used to tell me this in a different way when I would play a piano solo – “If you’re gonna play a wrong note, might as well play it loudly! People won’t know the difference because it will sound like you meant it!”

    And…my grandpa was legally blind and always had those books for the blind on tape all over the house and was always listening to them – but when I would come to visit, he would make me read to him and he taught me how to read clearly, loudly and at just the right speed, using the example of the readers on the tape. So the story of your grandpa reading on tape made me smile!

  3. I’d say yes…but. Yes, women often do the “upspeak” thing, and yes, we often use the reasonable doubt that exists in any situation to not argue a point as strongly as we could. But I really enjoyed Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s book, Confidence, that came out last fall. It argued that if you want to achieve great things, you are better off being your own worst critic than your own biggest fan. It is recognizing that you don’t know everything, and that there is much to learn, that allows a person to grow. This is one of those areas where it would be great if men could become more like women rather than women aiming to be more like men. Think of various things that might have been rethought — bad acquisitions, wars, etc. — if more men recognized that there might be reasonable arguments against what they’re attempting, and those arguments should be taken into account.

  4. I think I undermine what I verbally say on a regular basis by asking, “does that make sense?” It is not so much asking if my audience is tracking with me, as if they agree with me. Which is whatever.
    Also, as I teach people how to teach kids, whenever we cover Bible names, I tell them to say them-however-with confidence. Say it like you mean it. Say it loud and proud-even if you are pronouncing it wrong.

  5. Tim says:

    A couple decades back I was asked to read the Scripture passage for the sermon that morning. It was from one of Paul’s letters where there is a long list of ancient names. The preacher hoped to use the reading of all those hard names as an illustration of how God knows everyone by name even if we have trouble pronouncing them. The problem was that I didn’t read the passage as if I had trouble with the names. Instead I read the passage as if I knew exactly how to pronounce all those names.

    I didn’t, of course, but I read them as if I did.

  6. Steph says:

    My dad hates upspeak and did his best to make sure my siblings and I didn’t get into the habit. Though I still find myself doing it occasionally, I’m grateful my dad would point it out when I was in high school.

  7. Kathleen says:

    Although I’ve heard of upspeak before, I’ve never really tried to be self-aware about whether I do it or not. I’ll be curious to see in the days ahead as I think about your post and monitor how I say things. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  8. Gail says:

    I hear women using upspeak all the time. Drives me nutso that women undermine the level of respect they receive. That and using high pitched voice and lots of words; they sound like yapping Jack Russell Terriers.
    Years ago, I trained myself to not lower the pitch and # of words. (Never had an issue with upspeak) Women -these really work.

  9. MelissaJoy says:

    Being from central PA, upspeak is part of the accent. Thankfully, a curious college friend (from PNW) identified my question sounding ways which prompted me to investigate and change. Interestingly enough, PA has 6 distinct dialects which may be why my particular dialect, when spoken, sounds so lost or passive.

  10. Katherine says:

    When I lived in Australia for a couple of years an Aussie friend pointed out that so many Americans end their sentences with “I don’t know…”, particularly when stating an opinion. He noticed himself doing it and was aggravated- because he DOES know his opinion.

    I notice that more, since he pointed it out years ago. I do it frequently as a way to take the heat off an opinion I have. But when I hear myself doing it- I don’t like it! I’d rather just state my opinion and then discuss it, than trail off in uncertainty.

  11. Deborah says:

    This makes me think of a section in Lean In about the catch-22 confident-sounding women sometimes find themselves trapped in. Speak confidently, without using “upspeak” and without adding tag statements like “Just a thought,” and you’ll often be accused of being pushy or aggressive. Use “upspeak” and add tag statements, and you’re conforming to stereotypes and inviting people to ignore you or devalue your contributions. Ironically, I think it’s much easier to walk the tightrope if you look feminine and have a softer, higher-pitched voice.

  12. Karen says:

    If you haven’t heard someone who does “uptalking,” all you would have to do is listen to ONE MINUTE of Terri Gross on NPR’S “Fresh Air.” I have to TURN HER OFF because it is SO CONSTANT & I cringe the WHOLE TIME — it’s as if she is trying to sound SO non-threatening & cute . . . GAG! And then she will chatter over the expert she is interviewing with uptalk! I think a HUGE non-verbal “confidence move” is to get comfortable with pauses — DO NOT RESCUE an exchange if it goes silent! Ask a question & do not chatter on as if to clarify or qualify it . . .

  13. Nader says:

    Your grandfather knew what he was doing! The whole voice thing is so true. I mean, if we present ourselves with a weak, low voice, we generally come off as “weak” or just not strong. Now act big, and talk the part too, you paint a picture that eventually evolves into something being true. Kind of like how we use body language when we want to show authority.

    I actually learned this the hard way as I was always forgetting to present myself in a strong way, with voice and with body.

    Good thing I got into bodybuilding though…it shaped up my mindset and my body into something more than I once was!!

  14. Way back in the mid-70s, I took a course in college on gender and language. Among the references we read was a book by Robin Lakoff, called “Language and Woman’s Place.” An example she gave about power dynamics and language was as follows:
    Husband: “Honey, what time is dinner?”
    Wife: “Oh, about 7:00?…..”

    As Lakoff pointed out, the wife is seeking agreement rather than taking a stance. You could argue that this is valid teamwork in a marriage; on the other hand, the husband was asking a simple question and there’s no reason she couldn’t have answered with a simple reply.

    I am baffled (and at times despairing) that a simple but powerful teaching that has served me well (“use declarative sentences”), did not endure even a generation. What happened?

  15. Lisa says:

    Upseak is the number one reason I can’t watch The Kardashians or nearly any other reality show with females in them. Besides the content of course. Drives me batty.

    I’m a speech pathologist and often work with voice clients. You wouldn’t believe how many times I point out to my female patients how much they use up speak or funny little character voices.

  16. I love this post. I teach middle school and I HATE HATE HATE upspeak. It drives me crazy. (I also hate “like” being said before like every like single like word but that’s another story.) My personal challenge with pronouncing difficult words was put to rest at church. I’m Catholic and I “lector” at my church parish (I read the readings during the Liturgy of the Word). One Sunday I asked the priest how to pronounce a difficult name from the bible and he said, “It doesn’t matter how you say it. Just say it with confidence and everyone will think you are right.” I have followed that advice ever since! Love your work, Anne Bogel!

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