In this post, I’d like to show you how a greater awareness of one particular area of your vocal delivery can boost your ability to influence others.
Intonation is the way we change our vocal tone within a sentence, and it can dramatically alter the meaning of the words we speak.  You can harness the power of intonation to increase your ability to influence others.
As a manager, salesperson or advisor you will need to influence others from time to time and understanding more about the power of intonation can have big benefits.
Recently, one of my workshop participants 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.

Three common intonation patterns and their effects..

#1 In English, a spoken sentence which ends with a rising tone is typically interpreted as a question.
#2 Conversely, a spoken sentence which ends with a descending tone is often interpreted as a command.
#3 A flat intonation signifies a statement.

The Problem

The manager in question had developed a habit of raising her tone at the end of her request.  This type of intonation made them seem more like questions rather than instructions.  As a result, her staff took them as suggestions, which they often ignored.

The solution

We used video recording and playback to show the cause of her problem. Then, having raised her awareness, we helped her to solve it by practising the same requests with a descending tone. The result was a dramatic improvement in her perceived authority.
If you have this problem, then you too might benefit from a more conscious awareness of the way you use intonation.

Please leave a comment, I’d love to hear what you thought of this article.


  1. Adrian Reed on 24/12/2012 at 13:43

    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!


    • Gavin Meikle on 24/12/2012 at 15:35

      Thanks for the comment 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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