Speak with Authority

Taylor Mali, in his poem Totally Like Whatever, You Know, concludes very articulately with these words:

I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you,
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You have to speak with it, too.

Now part of the thesis of this poem is that our speech has become interrogative because of rising tones at the end of sentences. Called “uptalk” or” upspeak” or “high rising terminals,” this manner of talking has been popular with younger people since probably around the 80s when Valley Girl talk was first popularized. Dor those unfamiliar with the mode of speech, it sounds as if the speaker is asking a question, rather than making a statement. As a teacher who has worked with many young actors who have this habit in their speech, today I tout I would talk about it, why it happens, and what an actor who wants to change this habit can do about it.

In my experience, this isn’t about questioning. It isn’t necessarily about be uncertain about what you’re saying, though it may feel that way to a listener who doesn’t use uptalk in their own manner of speech. My theory is that the speaker is signaling, even unintentionally, that they aren’t done speaking yet. This is exactly the same speech pattern used by speakers when making a list. Try this experiment: list 6 items on a grocery list, pause after each item, and notice the pitch pattern. You should get something like this:

  • apples ↗
  • bananas ↗
  • cucumbers ↗
  • bread ↗
  • diapers ↗ and
  • ice cream ↘

You probably noticed that the items in the list rise as a way of indicating that you weren’t done saying your list; the final dropping inflection indicates that you are done. My theory about people who speak in this manner is that they are signaling to us that they aren’t done speaking. Constantly.

Often this strategy is used to seek approval from a listener, as if to say “do you see what I mean?” or “you know?” in order to check in, to see whether their listener is still listening or agreeing. This can read as a constant need for approval—that the speaker isn’t confident enough to make it through what they have to say without doubting themselves and checking in with the listener to see if you’re on board. That’s one reason for the strategy, but it certainly isn’t the only one.

If you start off making a lot of statements about something that you’re not very sure about where you’re headed, you may use uptalk as a way of saying, “please don’t interrupt me, ’cause I’m not done yet.” However, if you really don’t know where you’re headed, you also won’t realize it when you get there. Often these people finally finish, but also rise with their intonation here too, so we’re still left feeling “don’t interrupt me”.

In some of the cases of speakers that I’ve worked on this with, they really are unaware that they are doing it. They can READ perfectly well without uptalk, but when they speak off the cuff, it’s all rising at the end. In these cases, I break out the technology. At work, my York University, I have the advantage of owning a VisitPitch speech lab from Kay/Pentax, which allows me to show students their pitch contour in real time. I have the students tell me “facts”, things they know for sure. “The sky is blue. I like chocolate. My mother has hazel eyes.” They see a trail of dots on the screen that indicate the melody of their speech. Visual feedback in this way is really helpful, and they can quickly begin to see what their pitch pattern looks like.

One aspect of why people find the pattern so annoying is its repetitive nature. Monotone speech is all the same note; though it’s not all the same note, because it’s the same pitch pattern, we hear a monotony in the repetition, which disconnects us from the content or message of the speaker.

If I didn’t have the technology, I’d have a client/student speak and we’d make our own graph with our fingers in the air, rising and falling with the pitch pattern. Perhaps I would speak and we’d make the hand gestures, and then she would lead after I got the hang of it. (It should be noted that uptalk is much more common among girls and women.) Up to this point we’d just be mapping her patterns, not trying to make her patterns go anywhere. We’d explore the difference between uptalk and questions —Wh questions, like “Who are you?” or “What time is it?” that all MUST have falling intonation, and other questions that must rise, such as “are you going to the party?” Getting the student to feel that difference is really important.

Then I would get the student to tell me some autobiographical stuff. Telling a story based on facts that are personal is a great way to challenge yourself to merely state facts and not check in with your partner to see if they get it or not. Trust that you are the expert on the subject of your life story, and know that they will stay with you.

This takes a lot of practice, but with time, it is possible to become more confident with your speech and stop this process. For those without the habit, who might be in a position of power to hire you or accept you into an acting program, it can be a real deal breaker. Getting rid of the pattern can make you much more hirable to people who can’t stand uptalk. As the people who speak this way tend to be young and the people who don’t are old, this generational difference can mean the difference between getting the job and not getting it.

Eric Armstrong is the voiceguy. Eric is a dialect, voice, speech and text coach based in Toronto, Canada, where he normally teaches full-time at York University’s Dept. of Theatre. Eric has been teaching voice for the actor full-time since 1994, and has taught in Canada and the US, at the University of Windsor, Brandeis University, Roosevelt University, Canada's National Voice Intensive and York University. He has worked for nationally and internationally recognized companies such as Crow’s Theatre, Volcano, SoulPepper, & Canadian Stage in Toronto, and The Court Theatre and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Eric holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in Theatre Performance, and an MFA from York University (Toronto) in Acting. His mentors were David Smukler (York, Canada’s National Voice Intensive) and Andrew Wade (Royal Shakespeare Company). He has also studied at the Drama Studio, London, and Il Stage Internazzionale di Commedia dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia, Italy. He’s a long time member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, where he has served on the board, as a conference planner, photo editor for the Voice and Speech Review, Founding Director of Technology and Internet Services, and has written numerous peer-reviewed articles, essays and reviews for the VASTA Newsletter, the VASTA Voice, and The Voice and Speech Review.

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