Updated: Jun 2, 2020
You probably know this, but before we get started, let’s just clarify: what does monotone voice mean?
‘Mono’ means ‘one’ or ‘single’. ‘Tone’ can mean many things but in this context it means ‘voice expression’ or ‘pitch’. So what does it mean to have a monotone voice? It means that your voice sounds like it doesn’t vary in pitch, that it’s on one note - vocally inexpressive.
And when I googled ‘how to fix a monotone voice?’ I wasn’t surprised to see endless posts saying pretty much the same thing:
monotone delivery = communication killer
So those who speak in monotone talk in a boring way. That’s the common perception.
But if you think you speak in a monotone voice, know that you’re not alone. Adam Davis for Buzzfeed wrote 23 Struggles That People With Monotone Voices Will Understand.
So apart from its benefits for deadpan comedy, the prognosis is pretty damning: if you have a monotone voice you are evidently boring, annoying and untrustworthy (or at least that’s how the world will perceive you)!
I’ve been coaching people’s voices for over 12 years, and I’m not convinced...
Ever heard of Sam Harris? He’s a well respected Neuroscientist, New York Times best-selling author and very popular podcaster (check out his app Waking Up).
Listen to one of his podcasts and most people would describe his voice as monotone. And yet thousands tune in, thousands have downloaded his app and thousands pay to see him at conferences. Monotone? Maybe. But boring, annoying and untrustworthy? Evidently not!
James Rutter in his article The Monotone Myth: Why Your Monotone Voice Might Be A Blessing In Disguise cites a report claiming that a monotone voice in men is more attractive (those men have a greater mating success). Which is something that apparently Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s book Everybody Lies backs up (although I did find myself asking ‘yes, but what about monotone voice in women?’).
And it’s also a common perception that deeper voices (sometimes associated with being more monotone) convey more authority and confidence - probably because they sound more serious (I’ve written another blog post about deeper voices here).
So - not so fast! Maybe you don’t need to change?
That’s certainly the opinion of lifestyle blogger Kiri Nowak (who speaks with a self-diagnosed monotone voice). In The Struggles Of Having A Monotone Voice And A Straight Face she shares her personal story of feeling the social and professional pressure of needing to be ‘cheery’ in her voice and facial expression for other people. She speaks of her perception that everyone thought that she was intense, serious and even ‘bitchy’ or intimidating - none of which she identifies with. Her choice was to embrace it - although she says she still struggles to completely let go of the way she may be perceived by others.
Why Do I Speak In A Monotone Voice?
Preston Ni MSc in What Does Your Voice Say About You describes case studies where there is a clear link between how you use your voice and a combination of psychological conditioning and socio-cultural experiences (which is I gather a common position in psychotherapy). He suggests that because voice for most people is the main way in which we express ourselves, we clearly make conscious or subconscious choices about how we want to be heard. He concludes by saying that if these choices become habits, like speaking with a monotone voice, then they become harder to change.
Now, I’m not inviting you to the therapist’s couch (and it goes without saying that nature may well be at play as much as nurture) but if you want to speak with colour and you’ve tried but failed to improve the expressivity of your monotone voice, it’s sounds as though (whatever the reason) this habit may have deep roots and will need quite some coaxing plus a good dollop of patience and practice!
How can I improve the expressivity of my monotone voice?
So if - and it’s a big ‘if’ - you really want to improve the expressivity of your monotone voice, surf with care (there’s a lot of advice out there).
Susan Ward in Monotone Voice Speech Lessons - How To Pep Up Your Tired Voice suggests:
Reading sentences happy and sad
Reading something with belief or disbelief
Role playing with play/film scripts
In my experience, this is a really big ask of the average monotone speaker - especially role playing with a script. It doesn’t address ‘how’ to change the voice, just that it should happen by thinking a different emotion or attitude to what we’re saying. Monotone speakers have emotions and attitude, and yet they still sound monotone. That’s the issue, right?
Nancy Daniel in her blog post Have You Been Told That You Speak In A Monotone? suggests that a monotone voice is due to repressing feelings. She suggests that if you express your feelings your voice will have more colour. If true, that sounds like quite a tough thing to do. There are probably good reasons why you may not feel able to speak with emotion and express your feelings, or that you’ve not even got the right to. But she goes on to suggest:
taking a sentence and changing which words you stress, which adds more variety in pitch.
And in Kayla Schwarz’s blog Six Steps to Prevent a Monotone she suggests that the following will help:
Stand Up Straight
Use your voice as a highlighter