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Media Skills Training

Speaking While Female (and Male)

One of my favorite rituals is listening to podcasts, which my husband saves for us so we can listen together while we are riding around town. His most recent selection was right in my professional wheelhouse.

Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air on National Public Radio did an interview with women discussing women’s voices, more specifically women who have speech patterns called “upspeak” and “vocal fry.”

I had not heard the term vocal fry before and I’m still not sure I understand it or would recognize it as a problem. I have not encountered many people who are struggling with vocal fry.

But after more than 15 years of coaching people on their speaking skills, I’m very familiar with upspeak in both men and women. Someone is using upspeak when they end sentences or phrases with an upswing in their voice. They make everything they say sound like a question.

You can probably trace the roots of it in popular culture back to the 1980’s and the movie “Valley Girl.” But it really took off when actress Alicia Silverstone starred in the hit movie “Clueless” in 1995. I was working in television in the California Bay Area at the time and I noticed the pattern taking hold with teens.

I started noticing it more in my coaching clients by the mid-2000’s and by the time I started teaching at the University of Washington in 2011, I was hearing it all the time in both male and female students.

When I hear upspeak from my clients or students my advice until this past week has been the same. I have recommended that people notice it and stop doing it. I believe it negatively affects your credibility as a speaker and I think it diminishes your authority with others. I also think it’s very difficult to listen and maintain attention when someone is using upspeak.

But after listening to the Fresh Air interview and reading a recent blog post on LinkedIn from Lauri Hennessey, VP at Edeleman in Seattle, I have shifted my perspective a little bit. I’m beginning to see that this may be one of those generational characteristics that drive Boomers nuts but younger generations not so much.

So here’s what I’m saying to my students and clients. I still think it’s a good idea to notice whether or not you use upspeak. And if you do, the next step is to notice whether or not it is having a negative effect on your communication or your career. If you have a boss, a manager, or customers of a certain age, they may find your speech pattern annoying and that may affect your results and/or your career progress. If that's the case, do something about it. I suspect it will become less of an issue when the older generation is no longer the dominant group in management.

The questions I always want speakers to ask when they are preparing for the spotlight are “Who is your audience?” and “What do they care about?” It’s all about your audience. If they have trouble with upspeak, you will have trouble connecting with that audience.

So no matter how you speak, pay attention to your audience.

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