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

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“I was the butt of many jokes,” says Jiliang Ma, an entrepreneur based in Suzhou, a Chinese city about 90 minutes west of Shanghai.

When he saw a friend lose a baby late in her pregnancy, he got the idea for a fetal monitoring device. Friends teased him because he wasn’t even married, let alone a father, but he persevered.

Three years later, Ma’s wife Rebecca and 15,000 other pregnant women around China have used his device called Modoo, which tracks their babies’ development. The device — a flat, cordless disc that attaches to a mother’s belly with silicone gel stickers — measures fetal heart rate and other vital stats, and relays the information via a smartphone app.

Modoo inventor Jiliang Ma celebrates with his wife Rebecca and son Yoyo.

The device also monitors the strength of a baby’s kicks. The name Modoo is adapted from the company’s Chinese name Meng Dong, which means “adorable performance” or “cute kick.”

“During my wife’s pregnancy, she used my product every day,” says the 29-year-old entrepreneur. “I got data instantly on my mobile phone. I could see how hard the baby kicked, his heartbeat.”  

Even though he was traveling a lot for business during his wife’s pregnancy, Ma was happy that he could help monitor the progress of his son Yoyo. Ma laughs as he recalls one time when Yoyo’s kicks became quite intense: “I said to her, ‘He kicked you too hard. We are going to have to kick his ass after he comes out!’”

Modoo inventor Jiliang Ma jumps for joy when he wins at the Shanghai Creator Awards.

Modoo connects to an app that allows users to share data via social media sites like WeChat and Weibo. Ma says that makes it easy to help family and friends feel more connected.

At the Shanghai Creator Awards, sponsored by WeWork, Ma and his company took home the Business Venture award. Ma’s first reaction when he won the $360,000 grand prize was to jump for joy. The award, Ma said, “gives me confidence and energy to compete more.”

He also expressed his gratitude to his team of 30, which is based out of Beijing’s WeWork Wangjing. “I know how hard it has been for all of us these past three years,” he says. “We all work 20 hours a day. I’m really thankful to them.”

The prize money, he said, will help the company expand into new markets like Canada and the United States. But first he wants to take a while to savor the moment.

“I’m going to stare at the trees, the lakes, and then visualize our next step — New York — and beyond that, how we will conquer the world!”

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Nick Lim understands firsthand the life-changing power of a pair of pants.

Growing up in a humble household in Singapore, Lim loved singing but was unable to participate in school concerts because he didn’t have the right clothes. When he was 10 years old, his choir teacher asked him to meet her after school. They visited a shop where she purchased him a pair of slacks and a crisp white shirt.

Recalling that moment more than three decades later, Lim says his teacher’s generosity “allowed me to express myself onstage and develop self-respect.” It was occasional moments like this throughout his life, he says, that restored his faith in humanity.

“When you grow up poor in a dysfunctional family, you think the world is cruel,” he says. “You grow up thinking, ‘Why is the world so unfair?’ Every once in a while someone helped me though they had no obligation to, and that made me look at the world with a different perspective.”

Lim says those acts of kindness helped him stay on track at school and succeed as an investment banker. But as he excelled in his career, he began to question his life’s value.

WeWork Shanghai
At the Shanghai Creator Awards, Nick Lim accepts his prize from WeWork founder Adam Neumann.

“At the end of the day, we only live once,” he says. “What am I put on this world for? Definitely not to make as much money as possible.”

Five years ago he started baosquared, an organization that collects used clothing and other items and sends it to needy children in rural China. It also partners with brands like Vans to make sure their surplus merchandise doesn’t go into incinerators or landfills. So far it has helped 4,596 children.

“If people could help me the way they did and push me in the right direction,” he asks, “why couldn’t I do it for someone else?”

 The organization takes care to distribute only clothing that is not torn, stained, or otherwise damaged.

“You don’t want to give children something that makes them feel devalued,” he says. “If you give them something nice, it makes them feel loved. Checking a piece of clothing takes an extra 20 seconds, but makes a huge difference. If they grow up to be kind, generous, and loving, then we have a better chance.”

The same person who wore his first formal suit to perform with his school choir took the stage in front of hundreds of people at the Shanghai Creator Awards to receive the WeWork Community Giver award. The event celebrates and provides funding to innovators and entrepreneurs who are making an impact on their communities.

“It’s great to know there is an organization out there like WeWork looking for guys like us and shows its appreciation to little guys doing what we’re doing,” he says.

Lim feels that he’s helping to change the world one child at a time.

“When I visit the children, they try to show their appreciation,” Lim says. “I say to them: ‘What I would like you to do instead of thanking me is to someday when you are in the position to help someone, pay it forward.’”

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Kate Wang’s daughter Tingting loves to sing, socialize, and meet new friends. She also loves makeup, often taking herself to the hair or nail salon. She is like any other 25-year-old girl living in Nanning City in Guangxi, in southern China — except that when Tingting goes out, she does so by electric wheelchair.

Tingting was born with cerebral palsy, a muscle disorder that in China is considered an illness, rather than a disability. Wang struggled to find appropriate long-term resources and support networks for her daughter.

“People think of children as angels,” said Wang, “but when they see a disabled child or a family with a disabled child, they think of it as a burden or even a disaster.”

When Tingting was rejected by local public schools, Wang and her husband, Lvijiang Li, started AngelHouse, which provides housing, physical training, education, and counseling for around 90 children and young adults with cerebral palsy.

“I want to tell everyone that children with disabilities are still angels,” Wang said.

When it was started in 2002, the nonprofit encountered a host of unexpected challenges. As disabled children are sometimes considered bad luck in China, neighbors petitioned to evict AngelHouse from one of its locations. They’ve had to move five times in the last 16 years.

AngelHouse founder Kate Wang: “I want to tell everyone that children with disabilities are still angels.”

Relying on her family for childcare, Wang tried to balance the nonprofit and her work as a TV reporter. She was left with no time for herself or her daughter. “I was not only very tired,” she said, “but also very conflicted.”

But this period didn’t last long. “I was sure my daughter needed this, and others like her needed it,” Wang said. “Without AngelHouse, they didn’t have a future.”

When Wang swept both the Nonprofit and the Audience Choice awards at WeWork’s Shanghai Creator Awards, it was the culmination of her hard work over the past 16 years. “When I looked down at those two awards in my hands, so many images came to mind — the work of so many years, the faces of our AngelHouse children,” she said.

Winning the Audience Choice Award was particularly momentous. “That one felt amazing,” Wang said. “And it was such a surprise.”

AngelHouse started as a means for Wang and Li to do good for those in need. But today, after having helped thousands of children and families, Li says that she herself has been the ultimate beneficiary. “I can’t say that I’ve helped them,” she said. “It’s more accurate to say that they’ve helped me.”

Just after winning, Wang talked to her daughter and received yet another gift. Tingting exclaimed, “Thank you, Mom! Your efforts keep reenergizing us, and you always keep reenergizing me.”

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The inaugural Shanghai Creator Awards took place in a massive former aircraft factory transformed into an art exhibition space, the West Bund Art Center. The entire area along Shanghai’s southern waterfront was developed seemingly overnight five years ago as part of the city’s ambitious plans to kick-start its arts scene onto the global stage.

WeWork, a network offering space, community, and physical and virtual services that currently has physical locations in 21 countries, was introduced to China less than two years ago but aims to move in a similarly explosive and transformative way. The scale and energy of the company’s signature event, the Creator Awards –– which celebrates entrepreneurs, nonprofits, community leaders, and performing artists –– was testament to the likewise outsized dreams, plans, and successes of the featured entrepreneurs from China, as well as to WeWork’s unprecedented growth in the country. It was a night that celebrated, as Shanghai itself often manifests, the glimmering vision of the future.

Here are the biggest, best, most touching, and most awkward moments of the night.

Best swag: Original T-shirts emblazoned with the night’s logo “Created in China,” available from a live screen-printing station run by Shanghai’s IB Print Club. Created in China and right in front of your eyes (drying made more expeditious via a hand-held hair dryer.)

Tiniest item for sale at the pop-up market: Jelly, billed as the world’s smallest smartphone –– about as compact as a deck of cards.

Best reason to freshen up your LinkedIn profile: A crowd lined up for free professional headshots offered by WeWork’s photography team at the job fair, best selves delivered to inboxes that very night.

Members of the Yuedong Jumprope troupe amazed the audience.

Dream job for Netflix bingers at the job fair: Writer for Pink Koala, a feature film screenwriting company.

Dream jobs for the fashionista at the job fair: Farfetch, Lululemon, Yoox Net-a-Porter, NuSkin Beauty, and Coty were marketing dozens of positions.

Most relaxed: Lululemon, the global athletic wear company that houses offices in Shanghai’s WeWork Weihai Lu, set up a dome in the far corner where visitors were invited to try out meditative VR programs.

Highest torque: William Li, founder, chairman, and CEO of NIO Car, which produces premium electric and autonomous vehicles as well as sports cars. In a master class on mobility, Li, the oft-monikered “Elon Musk of China,” said that mobility was a matter of space, speed, and time. “Cars have thus far given people access to more space more quickly, and the next transformation in transportation would give back to people the time and freedom to do what they want to do [instead of driving].” Li also pointed out that taxi drivers are facing stiff competition with new ride sharing apps, as many drivers are illegally sharing licenses. “Don’t do illegal things in the name of ‘sharing’ or ‘doing social good,’” he urged.

Best selfie: Taken in the middle of the selfie-hungry crowd by Li and NIU Technologies founder Token Hu. In the photo are the smiling faces that master class moderator Chen Yao of IDEO called “the godfather and the genius” of China’s startup scene.

WeWork cofounder Adam Neumann (right) walked onto the main stage to kick off the night with “Shalom Shanghai!”

Biggest gauntlet thrown: WeWork cofounder Adam Neumann walked onto the main stage to kick off the night with “Shalom Shanghai!” After announcing in passing the news about WeWork’s acquisition of Chinese-based community-based shared workspace and lifestyle brand naked Hub, he issued a challenge: “I’ve got a message to every global company on the earth: If you’re not in China, you don’t exist.”

Most tear-inducing scene: AngelHouse’s founder Kate Wang, who started a nonprofit that provides housing, education, and care for children with cerebral palsy, brought the audience to tears when she introduced the reason for her project: her daughter, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and couldn’t find entry into normal public schools in Guangxi. “Because this wouldn’t have happened without her, I can also say that my daughter is a creator,” she said.

Most awkward comment from a judge: “You look like a teenager,” Mary Ma, CEO of fashion company Maryma Haute Couture, said about the youthful appearance of 33-year-old Nonprofit finalist Jie Xiao, founder of E.G.G. Walkathon.

Most acrobatic: Performing arts winner Yuedong Jumprope gave an athletic performance of jump rope tricks, flips, and moves set to dance music. The crowd let out a collective gasp and then a cheer when two members grabbed another by the arms and legs, swinging her around like a human jump rope.

Toughest grilling: Business Venture finalist Jiliang Ma of Extant Future, which produces the Modoo fetus monitoring device, was peppered with questions from the two female judges –– and mothers –– Angela Dong, GM and VP of Nike Greater China, and Mary Ma.

Kate Wang of AngelHouse swept up both the Nonprofit as well as the Audience Choice awards.

Biggest winners: Ma’s Modoo took home the Business Venture award, and Kate Wang of AngelHouse swept up both the Nonprofit as well as the Audience Choice awards. Wang, who previously told WeWork that she felt she had been “preparing for this moment for 16 years,” was overcome with emotion at the unexpected windfall, throwing her fist into the air in a jubilant gesture.

Catchiest catchphrase: “Created in China” was the big slogan of the night, plastered in oversized letters on the walls as guests arrived, projected onto the screen in the auditorium, and live screen-printed on swag. To those who say China lacks creativity, the night served as an in-your-face challenge to the hackneyed label.

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