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How to avoid a monotone

If there is one thing that will send your presentation audience to Snoozeville, it’s a monotone. The most amazing presentation you’ll ever produce will fall flat if you deliver it monotonously.


Because people derive meaning from your voice. And they do this using the subconscious, emotional part of their brains. This acts infinitely faster than the rational part, the part processing the words coming out of your mouth.

A monotone tells the audience you feel bored or disinterested. And if you feel this way, they will too.

To some extent, you can outweigh this with positive body language. Unfortunately, however, most of us present virtually these days. And in virtual presentations you are often relegated to a small rectangle on the audience’s screen. As I wrote in an earlier blog post on presenting virtually, your vocal delivery now becomes even more important.

So, let’s look at three things you can do to avoid that monotone.

Stress the right syllables

English is a stress-timed language. We stress some syllables and not others. For example, the word ‘department’ has three syllables. We stress the second syllable and not the others. We say ‘de-PART-ment’ and not ‘DE-PART-MENT’. This is called word stress.

We stress a syllable by putting more weight on it. We hit it hard and stretch it out. When you pronounce every syllable in a multi-syllable word with the same weight, it creates a monotone.

Unfortunately, there are only a few types of words that have reliable word stress rules. In words ending ‘-tion’ we stress the penultimate syllable as in ‘co-mmu-ni-CA-tion’. And for verbs starting ‘de’ and ‘re’ we stress the second syllable as in ‘de-CIDE’ and ‘reVERSE’.

For all those other words, try this technique. Stress difference syllables in turn, really overdoing it. Which pronunciation sounds right? Or you can look up how to pronounce the word on this excellent website, toPhonetics.

Stress the right words

In English, just as we stress a certain syllable in a word, we also stress certain words in a sentence. This is called sentence stress. These stressed words are usually content words, words which carry meaning. To use their parts of speech, they are verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs.

Let’s look at an example:

‘Let’s move on to talk about the benefits of virtual training

The words in bold need to be stressed.

Why? Well, let’s compare these two lists and decide which has more meaning:

· Move, talk, benefits, virtual, training

· Let’s, on, to, about, the, of

The first list has meaning, the second doesn’t. It’s made up of grammar words, the glue that holds sentences together.

Importantly, sentence stress involves two actions. First, you need to stress the content words. Second, you need to pronounce the grammar words weakly. This brings into play the Schwa.

The Schwa is a weak vowel sound. The word ‘America’ has two. Here they are highlighted in bold with the stress syllable underlined: ‘A-me-ri-ca’. The Schwa is never stressed.

The Schwa is the most common sound in English, accounting for 11% of the sounds made in English speech. That’s because besides being found in multi-syllable words, it’s used in weak forms of grammatical words.

Let’s return to our sentence to see how this works:

‘Let’s move on to talk about the benefits of virtual training’

In this sentence ‘to’, ‘the’ and ‘of’ are all pronounced with a schwa.

You speak in a monotone when you pronounce every word in a sentence with the same stress. In other words, when you use no weak forms.

The quickest way to avoid a monotone, therefore, is to start using weak forms, to start using the Schwa.

For more on the Schwa check out BBC Tim’s pronunciation workshop – The Schwa on YouTube.

Add variety to your voice

Another way to avoid a monotonous delivery is to add variety to your voice. This will help you engage the audience, connect with them on an emotional level and reveal your character and passions. You can do this in four ways.

Speak with energy, enthusiasm and positivity. Put yourself in an upright, confident standing or sitting position. Smile. Visualise success. Doing these will make you feel more positive and your voice will show it.

Stress key words in different ways. We have a few options available to us and using all of them within a presentation will guarantee vocal variety.

You can stretch key words out like this: ‘Our team has been A-maaaaaaa-zing this week.’ Or, you can pause before the word to build anticipation. You make your pitch go higher on these words, or really enunciate every sound in the word. All these techniques keep your audience hooked.

Vary your speaking pace. Going fast signals excitement and enthusiasm. Going slowly signals seriousness or gravity. Again, mix it up to hold their attention. But make sure the message you’re conveying with your voice aligns with the words you’re saying.

Going forwards

The only way to improve your vocal skills is practice. But it’s important to practise strategically.

Ask a friend to listen to you present and give you focused feedback. Record yourself and listen back. What exactly is causing your monotone? Is it your word stress, sentence stress or variety?

Watch your favourite Ted talk presenter. Listen to a 10-second segment, pause and repeat what they’ve said. Record yourselves and see if you have replicated their rhythm.

Remember, speaking is a skill. We can always get better. A monotone doesn’t have to be for life.

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