Inflection and influence – how to use your voice to gain influence

In this short post I’d like to focus in on one particular area of out vocal delivery namely inflection.   Inflection is the way we change our vocal tone within a sentence and it can dramatically change the meaning of the words we say.  You can harness the power of inflection to increase your ability to  influence others.
As manager, salesperson or advisor you will need to influence others from time to time and understanding more about the power of inflection can have big benefits.
Recently I had a student in a workshop who was having problems getting her team to do what she wanted them to do. Listening to some examples of the sort of requests she was making and the way she was saying them it quickly became clear that she had a problem with inappropriate intonation.
In English, a spoken sentence which ends with a rising tone is normally interpreted as a question.   Conversely a spoken sentence which ends with a downward tone or inflection is interpreted as a command.  A flat intonation signifies a statement.
The manager in question had developed a habit of raising her tone at the end of her requests making them seem more like questions instead  of commands. As a result her staff took them as optional suggestions which could be ignored rather than as directions to be followed.
The solution was to correct the fault.  We used video recording to demonstrate the problem and then, having raised her awareness of the cause of her problem, we helped her to practice making the same requests with a downward intonation at the end of the sentence.  The result was a dramatic improvement in her perceived authority.
If you have this problem then you too might benefit from more conscious of the way you use inflection .

I’d love to hear how you get on.   Please leave a comment and REMEMBER to share this post using the social sharing buttons below.

The Presentation Doctor.

2 Responses to Inflection and influence – how to use your voice to gain influence

  1. Gavin, this is an excellent blog post, thank you for sharing it.

    I knew that an upward inflection will often be interpreted as a question, but I didn’t realise that a downward inflection would be interpreted as a command. I will keep that in mind from now on!

    Regarding commands/requests, another thing I’ve observed (although it’s not related to intonation) is that sometimes people get into a habit of disguising commands/requests as statements. For example:

    1. “It would be great if you could complete that report by Friday”


    2. “I need you to complete that report by Friday”

    The first is a statement. Yes, it *might* be great if the report was completed by Friday. But statement 1 isn’t actually a request to do so. I have found these subtitles to matter even more when speaking to colleagues abroad, who may not speak English as their first language. Throw in cultural differences and it can be a recipe for misunderstanding.

    However… an even better way (in my opinion) of phrasing request 2 is:

    “I need you to complete that report by Friday so that we can get it to the client by their deadline. Is that achievable, or do we need to discuss the priority of the other tasks that we have in flight?”

    I prefer this, a it contains a clear command/request, it seeks confirmation (which confers understanding), and it provides the individual with the opportunity to reprioritise if they’ve too much on their plate. However, this is my own personal style (and might not be applicable for everyone).

    Thanks again for the article Gavin, it really made me think!


    • THanks for the commeent Adrian and I’m glad the post was of use. Communication is one of those things that we all tend to take for granted and it is way too easy to point the finger at others when it doesn’t quite work. When we remember to take ownership when communication goes wrong we can learn to make it better. Your tips on phraseology are spot on.

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