During a recent long car ride whose soundtrack was a medley of NPR podcasts, I noticed a verbal mannerism during scripted segments that appeared on just about every show. I’ve heard the same tic in countless speeches, TED talks and Moth StorySLAMS — anywhere that features semi-informal first-person narration.
If I could attempt to transcribe it, it sounds kind of like, y’know … this.
That is, in addition to looser language, the speaker generously employs pauses and, particularly at the end of sentences, emphatic inflection. (This is a separate issue from upspeak, the tendency to conclude statements with question marks?) A result is the suggestion of spontaneous speech and unadulterated emotion. The irony is that such presentations are highly rehearsed, with each caesura calculated and every syllable stressed in advance.
In literary circles, the practice of poets reciting verse in singsong registers and unnatural cadences is known, derogatorily, as “poet voice.” I propose calling this phenomenon “NPR voice” (which is distinct from the supple baritones we normally associate with radio voices).
This plague of pregnant pauses and off-kilter pronunciations must have come from someplace. But … where?
A primary cause of NPR voice is the sheer expansion of people broadcasting today. Whereas once only trained professionals were given a television or radio platform, amateurs have now taken over the airwaves and Internet. They may not have the thespian skills necessary to restrain the staginess of their elocution, leading to “indicating,” or overacting to express emotion.
Michelle Obama’s 2012 Democratic National Convention speech presents an interesting case of either indicating or of legitimately overwhelmed expression (or a combination of the two). By and large, the speech was received rapturously, though it had a few detractors, such as Walter Kirn, who wrote in The New Republic that the first lady was “overacting. Two gestures for every word.”
In an interview with NPR’s “On the Media,” he elaborated. “The emotions that were gushing up in her were exactly on cue with the lines coming up on the teleprompter,” he said. “That to me seems prima facie evidence of acting.”
Perhaps he was referring to the fact that she began numerous sentences and clauses with brief stuttering, such as, “Wh-when people ask me whether being in the White House has changed my husband, I-I can honestly say. …” Her stuttering ramped up during emotionally charged segments of her speech and mostly fell away during the more straightforward portions.
If Mr. Kirn’s charge was accurate, Mrs. Obama can be forgiven for trying to amplify heartfelt sentiments during a nationally televised political speech. But her performance (if that’s what it was) is in keeping with a culture in which game shows are called reality TV and a billionaire, skyscraping real estate heir is positioning himself, with some success, as down to earth.
By now, however, people trying to sell something — whether it’s a pair of jeans or a presidential candidate — know that consumers (and voters) are ever skeptical of faux sincerity. To subvert our suspicions, then, these salespeople reveal the ostensibly “genuine” cracks in their facades. How could I be deceiving you, the catch in the voice, the exposed seam in a sweater or the actor cracking up during an outtake asks, when I’m vulnerably baring my … flaws?
Speaking on (the more traditionally velvet-voiced) Alec Baldwin’s WNYC radio program “Here’s the Thing,” the most influential contemporary speaker of NPR voice, Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life,” said his own colloquial broadcasting style had anti-authoritarian roots.
“Back when we were kids, authority came from enunciation, precision,” Mr. Glass said. “But a whole generation of people feel like that character is obviously a phony — like the newscaster on ‘The Simpsons’ — with a deep voice and gravitas.”
For his more intimate storytelling, Mr. Glass “went in the other direction,” he said. “Any story hits you harder if the person delivering it doesn’t sound like a news robot but, in fact, sounds like a real person having the reactions a real person would.”
Nonetheless, the preplanned responses of NPR personalities sound somewhat counterfeit when stacked against the largely, if not completely, unscripted monologues that open rawer podcasts, such as Marc Maron’s “WTF” and Brad Listi’s literary “Otherppl” podcast. Mr. Listi, for instance, frequently allows for lengthy pauses in between sentences that convey, without stage directions, the process of someone thinking aloud.
Mr. Glass found inspiration in Susan Stamberg, who began hosting NPR’s “All Things Considered” in 1972. “She seemed like some Upper West Side, New York lady leaning into the microphone, mensch-ily talking into the radio,” he told Mr. Baldwin.
There may be another New Yorker partly responsible for NPR voice, albeit one across town. Carrie Bradshaw’s “I couldn’t help but wonder” rhetorical questions in “Sex and the City” were a marker, in the late 1990s, of the culture’s transition to a confessional tone (the voice-overs were meant to be part of her sex column, which, to heighten their extemporaneous feel, the camera often depicted her composing).
Compared with, say, Rod Serling’s coolly detached voice-over in “The Twilight Zone,” Carrie’s self-interrogating speech was as radical a departure for scripted television as Mr. Glass’s deviation from the staid, Cronkitesque anchorman.
But an even more forceful catalyst for speech patterns has been the modern Internet, the most powerful linguistic relaxant outside of alcohol. First, there was the advent of blogs, whose slacker-intellectual tone, Maud Newton hypothesized in The New York Times Magazine in 2011, derived in large part from David Foster Wallace’s “slangy approachability.”
“Was a blog more like writing or more like speech?” Ms. Newton wrote. “Soon it became a contrived and shambling hybrid of the two. The ‘sort ofs’ and ‘reallys’ and ‘ums’ and ‘you knows’ that we use in conversation were codified as the central connectors in the blogger lexicon. We weren’t just mad, we were sort of enraged; no one was merely confused, but kind of totally mystified.”
This style of writing then became most rampant on social media, especially Twitter, where the casual riposte trumps the carefully wrought and where, for fear of resembling a soulless corporate account or stiff elder, users typically traffic in, um, slangy approachability.
Conversely, specialists in fields where objective authority is still prized rarely stoop to the hesitations and self-doubts of stammering confessors. In disciplines like academics, technology and finance, many speakers pepper long speeches with “right.” Their pitch does not rise on the word, which comes in the middle of a series of statements — “analytics are most valuable over longer periods, right, than shorter ones, so … ” — rather than at the end.
“Right” is not, therefore, delivered as a question that gives the listener a chance to respond to and possibly refute, but as a quick statement that is at once self-affirming (“This is right; I’m certain of what I’m talking about”) and condescending (“Try to keep up with me”).
Then again, maybe it’s sort of just, well … me?
An earlier version of this article misidentified the Manhattan neighborhood in which the “Sex and the City” character Carrie Bradshaw lived. It was the Upper East Side, not the West Side.