October 8, 2018

Say What? How Vocal Tone Speaks Volumes About Professionalism


The tone of your voice — its quality and the emotions it conveys — can send a stronger message about who you are than your actual words. Your tone reveals whether you’re confident, uncertain, bored, annoyed, stressed, enthusiastic, skeptical — whatever your state of being, your tone of voice will communicate it to those around you.

Just imagine, for example, that you’ve been insulted by another customer while waiting in line at Starbucks. You turn and say to the perpetrator with a sarcastic or even furious tone, “I’m sorry?” Anyone within earshot knows dang well you’re not the least bit sorry. What you’re really saying is, “How dare you say that to me?” Your tone makes your true message absolutely clear, regardless of the words you’ve chosen.

The quality of your vocal tone is the result of intonation: the rise and fall of your vocal pitch, or the “melody” of your speech. Different pitches within a phrase form patterns that we recognize as denoting statements, requests, and questions, and these patterns characterize your speech.

Statements usually begin at a higher pitch and end on a lower one. These are declarations, plain and simple: “I arrived at work today only to find that my department had been relocated.”

Requests typically maintain the same pitch throughout. While phrased as questions, these are really instructions or suggestions, and your vocal pitch stays even: “Will you bring me the domestic sales file, please?”

Questions usually start at a lower pitch and end on a higher one. They’re designed to elicit information from others. When you end on a higher pitch, you’re implying the need for some form of resolution: “Do you know who’s leading the management meeting today?”

These are standard pitch patterns, familiar to almost everyone in our culture. However, not everyone adheres to these patterns in the same way. Deviations from these standard patterns can pose an obstacle to clear, powerful communication.

Let’s take a look at three of the most common, power-sapping pitch mistakes you can make — and some simple ways to change them:

1. Upspeak

You’re undoubtedly familiar with upspeak, a pitch pattern that makes statements sound like questions. In upspeak, a speaker ends a statement on a higher pitch, as if they were asking a question instead of making a declaration.

You’ve probably heard this pattern so often that you may not notice it anymore — even in yourself. Here’s how it sounds:

“I was on my way to a meeting? And I was walking past the break room? And then Eric asked me how to work the new coffeemaker? So I showed him as fast as I could? And then I was late for the meeting and my manager gave me the evil eye? But it wasn’t my fault? Unbelievable!”

My theory about a rising pitch at the end of a statement is that it’s actually a bit of shorthand. Instead of asking, “Are you following me?” or “Do you agree?”, we fold the questions into our statements by going up in pitch. Then, we look for some kind of signal that, yes, the listener is on board and agrees. This way, we don’t have to stop a story to ask for and receive this verification.

Unfortunately, this habit can easily become a dominant speech pattern, and it runs counter to the powerful, self-assured image you want to convey. In fact, it practically screams self-doubt.

When you make a statement that sounds like a question, you send the message that you’re unsure of yourself. You don’t know if you’re making sense, and you doubt whether you’ll be understood. If you use upspeak in a business meeting or when making a presentation, you’ll definitely sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Bottom line: Make your statements sound like statements rather than questions. Bring your pitch down at the end of your sentences, or keep the pitch even if you’re making a request. Go up in pitch only if you’re truly asking a question.

2. Shrieking

The highest range of your vocal tone can be off-putting and downright irritating. Many of us — women a bit more than men — use something called a “widely varying intonational pitch pattern,” which makes use of four distinct pitch ranges from low to high.

Typically, we use the highest pitch range to express delight, surprise, or excitement, as in,
“Wow! I didn’t know you were going to beeee here today!” You might also use it to talk to babies, small children, and pets. But no one uses it indiscriminately. You won’t hear anyone walk into a restaurant and shriek, “Helloooo! I’d like to order a cheeeeseburger!”  

In other words, the highest pitch range is a kind of sociological code meant to express extraordinary enthusiasm. It’s not characteristically used for common, everyday interactions.

This highest pitch range, while useful at children’s birthday parties and dog parks, can undermine your power and credibility in other situations. If you want to be taken seriously and be seen as a capable communicator, you’ll need to stick to the lower registers, especially when making presentations, delivering information, or giving instructions.

Bottom line: In order to sound powerful and professional, keep your voice in its lower register. It’s best to avoid your uppermost pitch altogether — unless, of course, you’re talking to a cute puppy.

3. Vocal Fry

You’ve heard vocal fry many times before, but it’s possible that you haven’t paid it any attention. You may even be using it yourself, unconsciously. Vocal fry — also called “creaky voice,” “glottal rattle,” and a host of other names — is created by slackening the vocal chords and allowing air to pass over the lax chords in a way that produces a low, almost growling sound.

If you want to hear what vocal fry sounds like, just say an extremely long sentence out loud without taking a breath. You’ll be frying up a storm by the end. Vocal fry is a natural occurrence when our vocal chords receive insufficient airflow. (You can also click here for an example.)

Vocal fry has been the subject of controversy for a while now, and you may be surprised to learn that all the media coverage has not been entirely accurate. Some facts about vocal fry:

  1. Women do not use vocal fry more often than men.
  2. There is no evidence that vocal fry is becoming more common. Linguists believe it has been around since the beginning of language.
  3. Vocal fry is not bad for your vocal folds. In fact, many languages, such as Vietnamese, make deliberate use of vocal fry, and speakers do not have any particular vocal problems as a result.
  4. Vocal fry is not always associated with “Valley Girls.” In fact, British aristocrats often use vocal fry to demonstrate their high social status. Just watch a few episodes of The Crown and you’ll hear them creaking away as they make disdainful statements about the scullery maids.
  5. Vocal fry is not always a negative. Some people, including radio personalities and airline captains, intentionally use vocal fry in order to sound calm, relaxed, and friendly.

So, if much of the panic about vocal fry is overblown, why would I include it in my list of irksome speech habits? Because it’s highly likely that you’re going to encounter a lot of people in positions of power — like hiring managers, bosses, and cops — who simply don’t like the sound of vocal fry, and they will judge you harshly for using it.

Prejudicial stereotyping? You bet. But here’s the reality: Like the clothes you wear or the way you style your hair, your vocal tone will signal your social status, maturity level, educational ranking, cultural ties, and your general professionalism. Why not present yourself in the best possible light, whether you’re interviewing for a job, trying to impress your current boss, or looking to land a call to the majors?

Bottom line: Make a conscious effort to eliminate vocal fry if you want to sound professional, mature, and capable. Speak with a crisp vocal clarity, and leave the vocal frying to Kim Kardashian and Prince Charles. They can afford to creak. They already have killer careers.

Denise Dudley is a professional trainer and keynote speaker, author, business consultant, and founder and former CEO of SkillPath Seminars.

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Denise Dudley is a professional trainer, keynote speaker, author, and business consultant. She is founder and former CEO of SkillPath Seminars, the largest public training company in the world, which provides 18,000 seminars per year and has trained more than 12 million people in the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. Denise holds a PhD in behavioral psychology, a hospital administrator's license, and a preceptor for administrators in training license. She is licensed to provide training to medical professionals in the United States and Canada, as well as a certified AIDS educator, a licensed field therapist for individuals with agoraphobia, and a regularly featured speaker on the campuses of universities including Cal Poly, USC, UC Irvine, and UCLA. She is the author of Nightingale-Conant's best-selling audio series, "Making Relationships Last."