Banishing a Monotone

Don't speak the audience to sleep - employ these vocal tips to keep them all listening

Banishing a Monotone

Long informative presentations that serve up data in a comprehensive, chronological way are a snooze-inducing shoo-in. Yet even the most well-crafted, imaginative speeches can produce cavernous yawns if they’re delivered in a monotonous tone. 

It’s difficult to think of people in public life who have monotone voices. I suppose people with them don’t make for great TV or radio – certainly radio! – and therefore get sifted out. This is unfair, because what they actually have to say might be brilliant. 

Monotonous voices are more present in comedy and drama and they’re usually the voice of choice for socially awkward characters: Alan Partridge, Howard Hughes from Ever Decreasing Circles, Alan Turing in the Imitation Game. We could argue that this is a dramatic trope but it taps into the belief most of us have that people who speak with a monotone are a bit nerdy and dull. They’re not easy on the ear. Their voice never varies and, because of this, they put us to sleep. 

So what can be done to rid a monotonous sound and keep audiences listening? Well there are two things a speaker can do that will almost certainly banish the tone: work with pitch and pace. 

The human voice is instantly more listenable when its pitch varies. To get a sense of the range of your pitch, hum into your resonators in turn. By resonators, I mean vocal cavities. You have one in your chest, throat, mouth, nose and head. Start with the chest and work up. You’ll know you’ve engaged the resonator when you feel a vibration in that part of the voice. Then move from a hum into actual speech. Say a nursery rhyme or a poem you know off by heart. The trick, when using the chest voice for instance, is to find a pitch that you can use that’s lower than your usual voice, but not so low that you sound ridiculous and feel like you’re pushing. And when playing with the head voice, try to find a note that’s higher than your natural voice but without sounding like Paloma Faith, or Orville the Duck! Next, practice making a contribution at a meeting. Start by making a statement using the chest voice, and then illustrate your statement engaging the mouth and head resonators.

Now play with pace. The general rule is that when we are talking about important or profound matters, we should speak slowly and deliberately but when we illustrate those matters, we should pick up the tempo. At school a lot of us were told to speak slowly when we’re speaking in public. This is bad advice. Speak slowly as you set out the vital facts but don’t do it all the time. A vocal plodder is trudging into the arms of Mr Monotone.

I teach participants on various group workshops how to improve pitch and pace but, for best results, it's best to look up my one to one service if you feel you have an acute problem with a monotonous voice. 

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