Down With Upspeak (Jim Karrh On Marketing)

by Jim Karrh  on Monday, Jan. 27, 2014 12:00 am  

Jim Karrh

In recent weeks I have been hearing from a lot of people — ranging from college seniors to seasoned marketing professionals — about ways to be more persuasive and effective this year. Based upon what I’ve been seeing, as well as new research, one area ripe for improvement is simple, personal and costs you zippo.

Most of my current consulting is in the areas of messaging and customer conversations. I have a lot of exposure to professionals and their tactics for marketing, selling and networking. I see how easy it is to fall into sloppy patterns of speech and other communication forms, and I must confess that I’m not immune.

Many sales people, product leaders and subject matter experts — particularly those in technology companies — are now in the habit of starting sentences with the word “so.” Buyers are starting to notice and typically find it annoying. I have even caught myself doing it a few times lately; I might need the equivalent of a swear jar to head that one off.

Another persistent and even more damaging speech habit is “upspeaking,” the pattern of ending a sentence with a rising pitch (so that a declaration sounds like a question). The trend even has a name: high rising terminal (HRT). The pattern gained a foothold among American teens years ago and has unfortunately followed many of them into adulthood. HRT has also spread across age groups in the United States as well as into other nations and cultures.

Interestingly, HRT has long been the norm in Australia and New Zealand (it’s known as the “Australian question intonation”). American and Aussie TV shows consumed in the UK are being blamed for spreading upspeak among professional Brits. A recent study of British managers and executives from the publishing giant Pearson found that most (71 percent) agree upspeaking is a “particularly annoying trait”; more than 80 percent said it is “a clear indicator of a person’s insecurity or emotional weakness.” More than half said upspeakers would be limited in job promotions and raises within their organization.

HRT isn’t just for Valley Girls anymore, and it obviously damages credibility and persuasiveness.

My observation has been that women use upspeak much more often than do men. A clever study in the journal Gender & Society demonstrated the pattern.

If HRT serves to frame statements in the form of a question, then the game show “Jeopardy!” would probably be a great laboratory for examining the practice. That’s what Professor Tom Linneman of the College of William & Mary did. He examined 100 episodes with 300 contestants and a total of 5,500 responses. On the show, women did indeed use upspeak twice as often as did the male contestants. But another interesting gender difference emerged as well. For the guys, the frequency of upspeak changed with success or failure; men who answered correctly used upspeak 27 percent of the time but those who were incorrect used it 57 percent of the time. The female contestants who answered correctly used upspeak 48 percent of the time, and that didn’t vary significantly when they were incorrect.

Researchers speculate about the root causes of upspeak, especially its more common use by women. Do women feel less confident? Are they to some degree apologetic about their opinions and successes? (These are actual questions, by the way.)

Regardless of its psychological foundation, upspeak is a pervasive and unhealthy communications trend. It will hold you back in a professional setting. Young women are particularly susceptible to using HRT as well as being undermined by it. If you are looking for a professionally limiting habit to shed in 2014 — or if you are trying to help a work colleague, your child or a young adult you’re mentoring — then addressing HRT might be the place to begin.

So I guess you’ll want to get on that?

Jim Karrh of Little Rock is a marketing consultant, researcher, speaker and author. Visit his website at or email him at



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