Monotone: 3 Reasons Why Your Voice Turns People Off

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Why do people shut down when I speak? Why can’t I get my message across? Why does it feel like I can’t communicate well?

It could be that you’ve got a monotone voice – a voice which doesn’t vary its pitch enough to get its message across.

Here, Buzzfeed gets it right, in its 23 Struggles That People With Monotone Voices Will Understand:

1. You constantly have to deal with people who think you’re trying to deadpan for comedic effect.

10. Public speaking is definitely not your friend.

11. And you’re a little bit afraid your voice will start to lull people to sleep.

14. And your attempts to exaggerate your voice basically just end up as shouting.

17. It always feels harsh when you hear that someone thinks you’re boring.

But they miss out one crucial thing: monotone voices can be fixed. And here’s how.


Elocution Lessons London: Oiling The Muscles

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Having a ‘flat’, ‘monotone’ voice is exactly what you think it is. The muscles which control the pitch of your voice are not working sufficiently, and what you get is a flatter, duller sound. Let’s look at what this means.

Natalie Bennett of the UK’s Green Party is one famous example of a monotonal speaker. Using analysis software called Praat, we can actually watch her pitch range in real time as she gives a speech at the 2015 election debates – it’s the blue line on the bottom.

Dull as dishwater, right? Those repeated drops on the ends of her phrases send you right to sleep. Her monotone is more soporific than whalesong.

Time to cleanse our palate. Let’s go for one of the greatest public speakers the world has ever seen, Muhammad Ali.

Now we’re listening. A stunning range, incredible vocal power: a powerhouse of a voice. But you don’t have to sound like Ali to get rid of your monotone – we’re aiming at a halfway house between dullness and Southern Baptist minister.

The first step is to get your voice acclimated to using a more varied vocal tone. Here, let’s turn to Christina Shewell, the writer of an enormous compendium called ‘Voice Work’.

  1. “Speak up and down your pitch range on a vowel or word.” Let’s use the word “you”.
  2. ”Start as low as possible and go to the highest you can manage; I generally use seven steps, but you can use more or fewer.” Let’s stick with Christina’s seven, going from the bottom to the top.
  3. Now go from the top to the bottom. I’ve put in an audio demonstration below.

(Shewell, 360)

Let’s do a similar exercise, but just on a ‘ng’ sound.

Say the word ‘song’. Take that ‘ng’ sound on the end of ‘song’, and start from the bottom of your range.

Using that ‘ng’ sound, go all the way to the top of the range and back down. This is called a ‘siren’, and is widely used by practitioners to open and stretch out the voice. An audio demonstration is below.

Using these exercises, you can start getting used to pitches outside of your usual range. Oiling them up helps to ease them into unknown territory, allowing them to extend beyond their usual comfort zone.


Elocution Lessons London: Over-Compensation

But to conquer monotony, oiling the muscles is not enough – we also need to translate these new ranges into our voice in a way that sounds natural. Barbara Houseman, a vocal coach with Daniel Radcliffe and Kenneth Branagh in her address book, has some great notes about this. When we become nervous about our voice,

“either we become tentative of we become over-effortful. If we become tentative, the voice will tend to be flatter because we are not committing to expressing our internal thoughts and feelings. If we become over-effortful, the voice will tend to be over exaggerated in its pitch movement since we will not trust our thoughts and feelings to be expressed by the natural movement of the voice.” (Houseman, 188)

Becoming tentative is what leads to the monotone. The nervousness one feels in front of an audience or with a second language causes a flatness in the voice. But it is not simply enough to tell someone to ‘use more range’ in their voice to make it more interesting. As Houseman says, “vocal gymnastics distract from the act of communication” instead of enhancing it (Houseman, 182). You’ve all heard the presenter who’s tried too hard to be likeable and made their nervousness obvious by overcompensation.

So how do you work on getting more range in the voice?

“It is a question of connection.” (Houseman, 187)

What on earth is ‘connection’?


Elocution Lessons London: Connection

David Carey doing his thing.
David Carey doing his thing.

Let’s turn to another pair of practitioners – David Carey & Rebecca Clark Carey. They talk about connection like this:

“Why are You Still Talking? […] Characters [in drama] start speeches intending to accomplish something and, in most cases, would very much like to get the job done with the first sentence or two. It is because they do not succeed at first that they keep going. […] Even characters who do intend to make a speech will gauge how well the speech is going and make adjustments along the way.” (Carey & Clark Carey, 2010, 151)

What is true for characters in theatre is true for any speech-maker. When you speak to someone, there has to be a reason why you’re talking.

Doctors catch up with their patients. Why? To monitor their health and discuss treatments.

Teachers deliver lectures to students. Why? To teach them new concepts.

Managers hold staff meetings. Why? To gel people as a unit and inform them of important developments.

There has to be a reason why you’re still talking. If there isn’t, then shut up.

But if there is, then work out what it is that you want to communicate. Write it down if necessary. Then boil it down to a key phrase you want them to remember. Then honestly and passionately deliver your message, landing on your key phrase. As Houseman says, you’re “connecting with your words and connecting with your listener” (Houseman, 189).

That’s connection.


Elocution Lessons London: The Exercise

So we need to do two things: to oil up the vocal folds to feel different pitch ranges, and to honestly connect to the words we’re saying.

For this exercise, use this copy of ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen, a coruscating poem on the horrors of World War One. Though, of course, you can use anything.

Let’s let Houseman do the talking:

“Sit comfortably, somewhere that is quiet and private.

“Take the piece of text a small phrase at a time, sometimes you may even take one word at a time. […] This does not mean that you will end up stressing every word, but rather that each word will have its own place and colour within the whole, which leads to greater variety and greater subtlety.

“Take the first phrase and repeat it quietly, but not whispered, three times. Just let the words register. Don’t try to find different ways to say them, simply let the words sink in.

“Then, move on to the next phrase and say that three times through, again letting the words sink in and register.

“Continue in this way, saying each small phrase three times and then moving onto the next.

“Don’t string all the phrases together, just say each one three times and then leave it and move on to the next.

“There is no need to try and achieve anything in this exercise, just receive the words and let them guide your voice.”

(Houseman, 189)


If you liked this stuff, get in touch to learn how you can get rid of a monotone. I work worldwide through Skype, doing one-to-ones at my studio in West London, or in courses in Central London. Click here to learn more. Or just comment below – can’t wait to hear from you.

One Response

  1. […] know speaking in public is tough. And it’s even tougher if you’re aware that you get a little monotone sometimes. But these exercises will help you improve your prosody – the musicality of the pitch range […]

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