Tone Speaks

Have you listened to National Public Radio (NPR), and conservative talk radio?

The personalities at the microphones all speak of the same issues, albeit from different perspectives. Yet the most startling difference is not in the ideologies, but in the tone.

Conservative radio personalities tend speak with passion that can lapse into anger. They clearly care about their subjects and aren’t afraid to let their emotions show. On NPR, however, you rarely hear a raised voice, or much emotion. This is ironic, since Conservatives usually characterize the kind of folks who listen to NPR as emotional, rather than rational.

If you could not speak English, and listened to American talk radio, you’d come away with exactly the opposite impression. NPR hosts, and most guests, sound low-key, usually serious, and intellectual. Conservatives on talk radio have a much wider range of pitch, dynamics and tone. If you couldn’t speak the language, you’d immediately think the latter are the emotional ones, while NPR is the home of cold rationality.

If you’re going to connect with someone in a way that ultimately persuades, you need to present your ideas in a way they find most agreeable.

I’m convinced that I could host a show on NPR where I explained views rarely held by its listeners, but in a tone of voice to which they’re accustomed, and many would listen and perhaps agree.

Tone Speaks

Words comprise the medicine of a message, but tone is the coating that helps the medicine go down.

There’s an old saying: Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying. A corrollary for our purposes might be: How you speak is so distracting I can’t hear what you’re saying.

For years, I’ve had the privilege of co-hosting a three-person panel discussion show. My adult daughter watched some of our shows, then asked me why one of my co-hosts was so angry. Her perception of his tone distracted her from what he said. He’s actually brilliant, but his general approach is tuned more to firing up those who agree with him, than with winning new converts.

Oddly enough, he does very well face-to-face with people who don’t yet embrace his ideas. That’s because public speaking and conversation are different than broadcasting.

My daughter, who at the time of that incident leaned more Progressive/Liberal on many issues, didn’t say she disagreed with my colleagues ideas. She didn’t seem to notice them. She got hung up on his tone. She and I have had many long, fun and even loving discussions of topics upon which we disagree, but neither one of us gets angry. Part of that is because she’s my daughter and I love her, but really, we both approach dialogue as a learning process, sounding each other out, and trying to find ways to connect, rather than employing the typical debate-defeat-destroy-demonize strategy.

Perhaps if we all saw every person we seek to persuade as the object of our love, we’d take more care with our tone.

How to NPR-Speak

So, if you’re trying to connect with an NPR listener, you might speak softly, show empathy, listen carefully.

Conservative radio hosts boast of their conservatism, taking pride in their bias and strong views. NPR hosts and guests, however, don’t trumpet their Progressivism. They tend to believe, and often say, that they are unbiased, and merely exploring issues in an almost-scientific fashion to discover the truth. They play audio of their financial supporters touting NPR’s lack of bias. The broadcasters and listeners alike seem to truly believe this.

If you’re trying to reach an NPR listener, shouting, and waving your hands about, or expressing powerful emotions might not work. Drop your tone, limit the range of pitch and volume, and restrain your emotions. Speak as if you were a researcher merely considering the data.

There’s another phenomenon of NPR-speak which annoys me to no end, but which is rampant among folks who disagree with me politically. It’s a tone of studied uncertainly noticeable by two main features.


Even if the speaker is absolutely convinced of her point, she’ll end her simple declarative sentences at a higher pitch. It’s been dubbed “up talking.” In English, raising the pitch at the end of a sentence makes a statement sound like a question. But to the NPR listener it sounds like she’s saying, “Here’s what I believe, but I don’t want to sound dogmatic about it. New evidence might alter my opinion. But I invite you to consider it.” To me, it sounds like she’s asking a question, and therefore, not sure of what she’s saying.

The other NPR-speak marker is to begin a sentence with the word “So,” for no apparent reason. There’s no antecedent to it, as in, “I was hungry, so I ate a sandwich,” so “So I wouldn’t be hungry later, I ate a sandwich.”

An NPR reporter, when asked what the president did today, might start by saying, “So…the president had a sandwich.”

Starting with “So…” and ending on a higher pitch creates what I call an ‘uncertainty sandwich’. It’s not that the speaker is actually uncertain, or lacking in confidence. It’s that she doesn’t want to sound arrogant by baldly stating what she believes. The NPR listener hears this as thoughtful humility that builds credibility. 

Of course, a Conservative hearing this advice, laughs. “I’m not going to pretend that I don’t believe what I really do.”

That’s not the suggestion. Believe it with your whole heart, but express it gently, calmly and with a demeanor that invites consideration, rather than declares conviction.