What Is Uptalking

I have a confession to make: I’m an “uptalker.” (And I’m not the only one out there.) Uptalk, or “upward inflection,” is the speech habit of ending sentences like questions: the pitch of your voice trails up at the end.

Examples Of Uptalking

“The Millennial generation is known for uptalking, and there is a lot of debate as to when this uptalk habit began,” says Dr. Susan Miller, a sought-after vocal trainer and an assistant professor of Otolaryngology at the Georgetown University Hospital. “Did it begin in the ‘60s in Australia or did it begin in the ‘90s in California with the ‘Valley Girl’ speech pattern?”

If you’re picturing Clueless, you’re correct. But men uptalk, too.

“Partly this is how we’ve learned to talk. We learn from older ‘uptalkers’—brothers and sisters and friends,” says Kim Dower, also known as “Kim from LA,” a Los Angeles-based media trainer who has coached many authors, celebrities, and business leaders, including Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

According to Dower, “Uptalking implies a lack of certainty in what we’re saying—more like floating a suggestion than stating a fact—somewhere in between a question and a statement. It conveys a lack of authority, knowledge, depth, and experience.”

So for young professionals, entrepreneurs, and anyone else interested in communicating their expertise around their work, uptalk creates an obstacle to being taken seriously.

Miller says, “Women are referred to me by their employers, and the employers will say, ‘She’s great, but she sounds young.’ With guys who uptalk, people say, ‘He sounds uncertain. He’s not very confident.’”

When we speak with certainty, we’re perceived as being knowledgeable and competent—whether we’re talking about our most recent work project or our opinion of the latest iPhone update. We can use our voice and intonation as a tool to influence people and situations.

Ready to begin that intonation makeover? Let’s go.

Record yourself talking

According to Dower, the best strategy is to record yourself and listen to how it sounds.

“The moment you hear it, you know why it doesn’t work,” says Dower. “Say the sentence: ‘It’s time for us to get started on this project.’ Then say it in ‘uptalk.’ Then say it ‘normally.’ Hear the difference. As with everything we do, the first step in changing a habit is to watch ourselves doing it. When we hear it, we’ll be motivated to change.”

Note: it’s okay—normal, even—if you cringe at the way your voice sounds recorded.

“No one likes the way their voice sounds,” says Miller. “It’s because as we’re talking, we hear ourselves through the bones in our head. So everybody thinks their voice is lower. That’s why you sound different on a voicemail.”

Miller has her clients write down five statements and practice saying them with delicate conviction.

“You need to end the sentence as a fact. For example, ‘My name is Susan.’ I am very certain about what I’m saying. So if I am certain of what I’m saying, I’m going to remember to give air through that last word. I need to make sure that last word is heard.”

It may sound or feel a little bold at first, but hey—be bold.

Record a phone conversation

With permission from a friend, significant other, or family member, record a phone conversation (there are several good apps—I like TapeACall Pro). Start an involved conversation. Then listen to the recording.

Miller says, “That’s another way to catch yourself doing it: when you’re thinking more about what you’re saying to someone than you are of how you sound.”

Erin Matson, a Washington, D.C.-based writer and the co-founder of Reproaction, a buzzy non-profit that advocates for women’s reproductive rights, says standing during phone conversations is always a good idea.

“One thing that really helps for important phone conversations is to stand up,” says Matson. “You automatically sound more confident—and start to learn how to transfer that to your sitting voice.”

Break old habits

Consider if you use upward inflection as a strategy to temper a big ask or a strong viewpoint. Dower reveals, “We do it when we’re not sure whether the person is going to accept what we’re saying—it sounds like a suggestion, when in fact it’s a statement.”

Miller has had patients suggest that they started uptalking in high school, as an unintended byproduct of doing so many group projects. “I’ve asked clients, ‘Why do you think you uptalk?’ And some people say, ‘Maybe it’s because in high school, we did all team activities. We didn’t want to act like we knew the absolute answer.’”

Matson says, “There’s a whole body of linguistics that tracks how women in the United States tend to use communication styles that seek consensus. Uptalk is an extension of that, especially among younger adults.”

If you want to be heard, speak. If you need to disagree, disagree. No matter what point you’re making, you’ll invite a more favorable outcome if you sound eloquent and polished when you speak.

Don’t forget to breathe

Come to understand your voice as both an instrument and a business tool.

“We can have a voice we like,” says Miller. “It’s an instrument, and we can all learn to play it.”

As in music, speaking well is inseparable from the practice of taking good breaths.

“When we speak, breath has to come from below, from your lower ribcage,” says Miller. “When someone wants to project their voice, if they take a sucky breath instead of a relaxed, lower breath, then their throat tightens, so that sound—their voice—is resonating through a piccolo instead of a clarinet or saxophone.”

Voice is an area where we have great influence over how others perceive us. We have the power to maximize this flexible, adaptable medium through which we communicate: to influence, to share our thoughts, and to own our expertise.

Photo credit: Lauren Kallen

Because she is the name and face of the operation, it’s easy to assume that Issa Rae alone is responsible for parlaying her web series, Awkward Black Girl, into a thriving business that includes producing her hit HBO show, Insecure, and other endeavors. But she would be the first to dispel such misconceptions.

“I like to hire people who have a specific lane, who do something very well,” Rae told WeWork employees from around the world as part of the “Team Awesome” track at the company’s Global Summit in Los Angeles in early January. “I hire a lot of people who are smarter than me. If I’m the smartest person in my company, then my company will go nowhere.”

(Left to right) Benoni Tagoe, Deniese Davis, and Issa Rae talk about how they work together to fund passion projects at WeWork’s Global Summit.

Two of those people—Benoni Tagoe, business-development director of Issa Rae Productions, and Deniese Davis, her co-founder at ColorCreative, which shepherds underserved voices in Hollywood—joined her on the panel. They spoke both about how they work together to fund passion projects that will also elevate their brand and how they find other team members who may not always be the obvious choices.

“Sometimes you may not have the skill set; sometimes you may not have the talent,” says Tagoe, a friend-of-a-friend Rae hired when he explained to her all the ways she was missing out on monetizing her business. He says the important thing is to “always have the curiosity” because “with curiosity, as long as you’re trying and figuring things out, you’re allowed to make mistakes.”

Because these executives came up through nontraditional means, Davis stresses to her coworkers the old adages that there are no bad ideas and you shouldn’t be afraid to speak up. Even when budgeting or scheduling won’t allow them to implement an idea right away, she says, “We love to come up with ideas to attain and aspire and achieve, even if it’s going to be three or four years down the line.”

Rae admits that she’s sometimes had doubts about pitches, but when others persuaded her to have the patience to wait it out, “I found out, pleasantly, that I was wrong, and I’m glad I didn’t say no.” She also keeps a file of the projects that didn’t pan out, which keeps their egos in check and reminds them that there’s more work to do. “I don’t necessarily believe in failure; I just believe in the opportunity to learn and grow.”

Davis and her team never stop learning—and because of that, she says, “we’ve gotten really good at identifying the priorities that need to take place” even if they require extra meetings and work to make their time efficient.

Sometimes this is easier said than done. Tagoe says that even though he may be the type of person who is always looking for the next big idea, “in a team setting, you can’t get everyone to move at the same time. You have to approach people individually.”

While Rae acknowledges that there can be extra pressure on people of color to always “have your best feet forward,” she firmly believes that “within your company and within your team members and the people you’re working with,” it’s OK to sometimes bring your B-game.

“The world is watching,” agrees Tagoe. But, he says, every year has built on the last. “I think we’re excited about 2019 because all our ideas are coming together.”

Much of this is due to employee retention, he says. It’s not just about “making sure [you’re] taking care of [your] people,” he says. “It’s making sure that the company you work for is telling that story of, This is a great place to work.”

The head of the operation isn’t anything without the support of the bodies behind her.

When the producers of If Beale Street Could Talk wanted to help promote the Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning film set in Harlem, they reached out to Teri Johnson, founder of Harlem Candle Company.

Annapurna Pictures wanted a scent that could evoke the movie’s exact time and place. And Johnson, who knows the history of Harlem and renowned residents like performer Josephine Baker and musician Duke Ellington, was the right person for the job.

Johnson began researching James Baldwin, the author of the 1974 novel that inspired the film. She discovered that at the time he wrote it, Baldwin was living in the south of France. Journalists who visited him there often wrote about his love for his garden.

“Of course, any good writer is going to tell you how it smells,” says Johnson, a member at WeWork 8 W 126th St. “So I found stories about the fragrances in his garden—orange blossom, wild lavender, and rosemary.”

All of which inspired her candle “Love,” which she says evokes Baldwin’s home in the village of St-Paul-de-Vence. Ranging from $14 to $60, the candles are available on her website.

“I’ve been obsessed with beautiful scents my entire life,” says Johnson. “I’ve been very inspired by places I’ve been and things I’ve smelled and tasted.”

Johnson began selling her candles in 2015, making them in the kitchen of her apartment in Harlem. Although she now has help making them, she remains hands-on, especially during peak periods. “Do I still pour and package when I need to? Sure.”

Since she started her company, Johnson has sold more than 20,000 candles inspired by the New York City neighborhood.

The first step, says Johnson, is always research into Harlem’s history. For her “Langston” candle inspired by writer Langston Hughes, an avid smoker, she wanted “something with tobacco notes.” Then she discovered that he had twice lived in Mexico, where he frequented small, dusky churches.

“He became a little obsessed with the incense burning in these churches,” says Johnson. “So I said, ‘Oh, I want incense notes in the candle.”

Johnson works with perfumers to come up with just the right scent. The entire process, she says, can take close to a year.

Johnson uses soy wax for her candles, which she buys in 50-pound boxes. After weighing the wax chips, she liquefies them on the stove.

Johnson lets the wax cool. She knows it’s ready, she says, by just by touching the pot. At this point, she can pour the fragrance oil.

Johnson stirs the oil into the wax for a solid minute and lets it sit until it’s ready to be poured—another temperature she knows by touch.

She places pre-tabbed wicks into candleholders and adheres the tab to the glass or metal, keeping the wick centered.

After she pours the candles, Johnson sets them aside to harden. Afterward, she trims the wick to size.

When they are ready to ship, Johnson affixes the label. The logo above the company name is a flame, but if you look closely another image appears.

“It’s actually a person holding their arms up, representing unity, community, and love,” says Johnson. “We wanted to embrace the past and the present, to celebrate old-school Harlem that is still here, to keep that alive.”

Photos by Katelyn Perry

For Jaden Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness is more than just the creatively misspelled title of the film he debuted in at age 7 with his superstar dad, Will Smith.

It’s the overarching goal in life, says the 20-year-old musician-activist-entrepreneur. “Unhindered, long-term happiness,” he emphasizes. “People think it’s the new car, the job promotion, but it’s not. That’s not what success looks like. Success is happiness.”

Smith alighted on the subject as part of an insightful address at the “Make It Happen” track, a panel discussion at WeWork’s recent Global Summit in Los Angeles. Sporting powder-pink hair and clad in apparel from his MSFTSRep sustainably-sourced fashion brand Smith possessed his father’s charisma; the directness of his mother, actress Jada Pinkett Smith; and a preternatural maturity.

“I’m young and on the path of trying to make things happen,” he says. “But everything I do in my life, I do for my parents.”

“Failure is important because it’s how you keep going,” says Jaden Smith.

So far, he’s done a lot. He went into acting against the advice of his well-meaning parents, who warned him that it was a lot harder than it looked. But when his dad had trouble finding the right young boy to play his son in Pursuit, Smith got his chance. He nabbed roles in other films—The Karate Kid and After Earth—while segueing into music; his debut album, SYRE, which came out in late 2017, hit 100 million streams on Spotify. His clothing brand, MSFTSRep, has the lofty ambition of reusing materials as much as possible: Pants that Smith wore on stage were embellished with patches of old T-shirts that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.

And then there’s JUST Water, his brand of water bottled in Glen Falls, New York, which comes in plant-derived packaging with a cap made from sugarcane, designed to be reused or recycled with none of the long-term environmental impact of plastic. On the market since 2012, JUST Water—a member at WeWork 311 W 43rd St in New York—is now sold in 30,000 locations across the country, including Target, Ralph’s, and CVS.

The success of the brand fueled JUST Impact, a nonprofit arm of the company predicated on environmental preservation. JUST Impact’s latest initiative involves installing a reverse-osmosis filtration system in the lead-ridden water supply in Flint, Michigan. With this pilot program, the city can purify 10 gallons of water every 60 seconds, allowing residents to ultimately wean themselves off of the reported 3 million bottles of water consumed each year.

“Instead of having to outsource [water], we said, ‘Let’s create something for you here where you can pump your own clean water, in your community,’” Smith explains. “I’d been seeing them struggle for so long, and I asked, ‘Why isn’t someone doing something about this?’ Ultimately, what I’m trying to do is to help people around the world.”

As if this weren’t enough to keep anyone busy, with Smith there are always more ideas percolating, companies incubating, and partnerships forming. “If it’s more of a complex idea, the first thing I will do is find a business partner, someone I can explain it to and they get it,” he says.

Next, he focuses on team-building, which he says is a critical step in any endeavor. “We look for the next piece of this puzzle. We go through our phone books and find someone who could be a business manager. Then I say, ‘Do we all still get this vision? Do we get the mood boards?’ I repeat that the whole time, meeting after meeting until we’re sitting around a conference table with 10 people, and we can say, ‘OK, let’s get it done. Let’s go.’”

For Smith, the true measure of success may be happiness, but he also finds value in failure. “Failure is important because it’s how you keep going—it’s what you do right after you fail,” he says. “Nobody is meant to win all the time. Instead of saying, ‘I failed today,’ start saying, ‘Here’s how I learned, experienced, or grew today.’”

Paint is big business—and for most of us, a big hassle. While American consumers are expected to spend just north of $30 billion on paint and paint accessories in 2019, the process of choosing, buying, and applying paint to homes, offices, and retail spaces is often an aggravating one.

“Buying paint has traditionally involved an overwhelming color selection, poor customer service, many trips to the store, and a lot of frustration,” says Nicole Gibbons, an interior designer who founded the direct-to-consumer startup Clare as a way to offer design-focused customers an easier, better way to engage with every step of the painting process.  

From colors named after trendy incense to paint that promises to reduce sound, new direct-to-consumer brands like Clare are proving that changing the color of your walls can be easy, cost-effective, and stress-free.

With Clare, it’s all about taking the guesswork out of painting a room. A point of pride for Gibbons is Clare Color Genius, a tool she describes as “a digital color consultation paired with a high-tech algorithm that delivers an expert color recommendation.” It prompts users to upload images and information about natural light in the space, furniture, personal style, and more before offering suggestions. An easy swatching system (stick-ons!) helps customers narrow the field to the color, and a calculator determines exactly how much paint is needed to cover the area.  

The direct-to-consumer startup Clare offers design-focused customers an easier, better way to engage with every step of the painting process.

More than anything, the future of paint is one in which logistics aren’t a concern—the direct-to-consumer model, says Gibbons, allows her to see in real-time what her customers need and offer them the right products each step of the way.

For Caleb and Natalie Ebel, the husband-and-wife team behind Backdrop, the frustration with the painting process was personal. “We’ve painted every apartment we’ve lived in,” says Natalie of the New York City-based couple, who previously worked in financial operations at Warby Parker (Caleb) and marketing (Natalie). So in November 2018, they launched Backdrop, their own direct-to-consumer paint company. From the start, they knew they’d tapped into something important.

“We had an amazing community of early Backdrop brand supporters—some of whom we met at WeWork Corrigan Station in Kansas City, Missouri (the Ebels call New York home but are originally from Kansas City, and often travel there to visit family)—who helped vote on colors and paint names,” says Natalie. Their colors, like “Palo Santo” and “Rose Quartz,” speak the language of Instagram, tapping into trends in design and decor.

Looking beyond home spaces, the Ebels note that the new wave of paint options could be a boon to business owners: “Commercial walls require so much upkeep that Backdrop can really help streamline,” Caleb says. Going the direct-to-consumer route cuts down on shopping time, and smaller color ranges allow businesses to home in on the right look for their spaces instead of poring over an endless array of shades.

Looking beyond home spaces, the founders of Backdrop note that the new wave of paint options could be a boon to business owners.

Other companies bypassing the hardware store are offering paint that does more than change the wall color. Airlite, a member at London’s WeWork 1 Mark Sq and recipient of funds from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, offers a powdered paint product that uses titanium dioxide to reduce not just pollutants but also odor and bacteria.

Shanghai-based Hipaint, a member at WeWork Ciyunsi, offers paint containing polymer-nanofilm technology, which turns any wall into a whiteboard. The product was inspired by founder Justin Cheng’s then-2-year-old daughter. “She just grabbed a marker and drew on the wall,” he said. “An entire wall can hold a totally new world for kids.”

Jonah Lupton came up with the idea for his noise-reducing-paint company, Soundguard, while living in a loud apartment building after college. “I thought, there has to be a better way to deal with this than just trying to soundproof the room itself,” says Lupton, who worked with a team of paint chemists for more than two years to refine Soundguard’s patent-pending formula. The paint is proven to reduce sound through interior walls at nearly 90 percent and is already being used (or soon will be) in hotels and apartment buildings in vacation destinations like Hawaii and business hotspots like San Francisco. But Lupton, whose company is based at WeWork 745 Atlantic Ave in Boston, thinks it holds an obvious appeal for workspaces, too. “Imagine a law office that deals with sensitive information,” he says. “No more whispering and trying not to be overheard!”

One thing nearly every new direct-to-consumer paint company has in common is an emphasis on sustainability and safety—for humans, pets, and plants alike. The products are low-odor, low-VOC (volatile organic compounds), and GreenWise certified, meaning less stress for increasingly health-conscious shoppers.

The new crop of paint startups can’t promise that changing the color of your walls will be quite as easy as changing the color of your shirt—but their goal is to make it as painless, even enjoyable, as possible.

Prep school

Before you paint, check out these tips from our experts.

Stock up ahead of time. Instead of running around the hardware store hoping you get all the right supplies, try a preassembled toolkit, like Backdrop’s Essentials Kit, which comes with all the tape, trays, and brushes you’ll need to get the job done.

Try before you buy. Every expert we spoke to agrees—sampling is key. That’s why new direct-to-consumer companies offer low-priced, easy-to-use swatches you can consider in your space before committing.

Get creative. Have a vision: “Do you want it to feel calm and relaxed, energizing and vibrant?” asks Gibbons. ”Try to find colors that channel those vibes.”

Photos by Katelyn Perry