Upspeak: The Career-Limiting Trait You May Not Know You Have

The Career-Limiting Trait You May Not Know You Have

My second-grade teacher was a drill sergeant. But like all tough teachers, I learned valuable lessons from her that stick with me to this day. I can still remember answering a question she had posed to the class. I was so unsure of myself that my answer sounded like another question. Mrs. Fravel was quick to respond, “Are you making a statement, or are you asking me a question?” It was one of her favorite comments to make in that class, as a lot of us were guilty of using what is now called upspeak.

The practice of speaking in a rising tone of apology or questioning goes by several other terms, including high rising terminal (HRT), uptalk, rising inflection and high rising intonation (HRI). But no matter what you call it, it can have devastating consequences on your professional prospects.

The U.K. publishing firm Pearson conducted a study on the topic, which received a flurry of press attention earlier this year. More than half of the 700 executives surveyed said that upspeak can kill an employee’s chances of earning a raise or promotion, and 85 percent said the trait is a clear indicator of emotional insecurity or emotional weakness. Another 71 percent found the trait to be “particularly annoying.” Ouch.

In my three decades in the recruiting business, I’ve interviewed thousands of job candidates spanning all career levels and professions. And I can tell you that upspeak is a definite career limiter. People with a great resume, the right degrees and all the best technical skills can lose credibility during the first minutes of an interview if their answers seem to only ask more questions. Hiring managers doubt not just the candidates’ confidence levels but also their ability to perform critical job functions, like leading, collaborating, negotiating and making tough decisions. There’s more emphasis on soft skills and communication in the business environment than ever before, and upspeak may indicate serious gaps in these areas.

The good news is that you can eliminate this trait. But you must be aware of it and work at reducing it. Before your next important meeting (it could be a job interview, performance review or presentation to your boss), ask a trusted mentor to sit down with you and role-play. It’s best to do this in person, but you can also do a practice run over the phone or Skype. Sometimes, we focus so much on what to say that we don’t give enough attention to how we’re saying it. Your mentor can catch upspeak as it happens, so you can rework and rephrase your responses to sound like a statement instead of a question.

As you become more aware of your speaking style, you’ll likely eliminate upspeak for good. And in doing so, your options for greater career success can multiply.

What school lessons have stuck with you over the years? Did someone early on teach you to avoid upspeak, or did you learn in a different way? Let me know in the comments below.

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