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
Tell a story
Have a conversation
I have a lot of time for conversations about the role of breathing, alignment, pausing and storytelling, but it’s the ‘voice as a highlighter’ that I think could make an impact. I imagine literally highlighting words from some written text that seem to carry the most significance and attempting to modulate my voice on this words. I imagine practicing this with various written text and then trying it out with some phrases I use a lot.
Ashley’s Exercises For How To Correct A Monotone Voice
Let’s get one thing straight: if you do manage to inject more variation into your voice, it’s probably going to feel weird (at least for some time). The reason being that it is not what you would currently call ‘you’. ‘You’ is currently monotone and that’s what is normal. So if you dare to break the status quo then you’ll have to embrace feeling weird for a bit.
The second thing to say is that whatever technique or practice you employ, you’ll have to stay with it and practice before you’ll be able to use it in live conversation. Most people hate change, and habit forming takes time - but you already know that, right?
And just before you have a go, my experience is that people who struggle with this often need a lot of encouragement and a big nudge. This is why coaching can be so helpful.
On to the exercise:
Take a piece of written text, decide which words are most significant in expressing the meaning or feeling behind the content and draw a semicircular line (like a little hill) above those words (you could also highlight the word as well if you think that might be useful).
The up and down movement of the curve is suggesting what you might do with your voice: that your voice goes up in pitch and then down. Try saying this sliding up (on the word ‘up’) and down (on the word ‘down’) in pitch:
‘I’m sliding up and sliding down in pitch’
Try it again.
Now try it with this:
I bet that felt strange?! Try it with something that’s a bit more pertinent to you: an article about a hobby of yours, something work related, or something from current affairs. The more relevant the more you’re likely to see a potential use in your life.
Now, it’s important to notice that pitch is a very variable thing. We don’t just have high or low or up and down, but all sorts of micro-tonal changes which communicate a myriad of different feelings and intentions.
But to begin with, dare yourself to start with this simple idea of using a higher pitch on significant words.
Still need a bit of encouragement or a nudge to take that leap and speak with passion and conviction and greater expressivity through your voice, learn more here.