How can I sound like a human being when I talk?
May 7, 2012 1:38 PM   Subscribe

I would like my voice to be engaging and interesting sounding. Difficulty: I currently have the tonal range of a garbage truck.

How do you learn to speak with a flexible, engaging-sounding voice? I tend to speak in a sort of almost-sarcastic monotone, and my voice goes kind of flat at the end of nearly all my sentences. When I'm excited, I talk a little faster, or my voice goes up in pitch infinitesimally. If I try deliberately to "interpret" more as I speak, it sounds like iambic pentameter written by an idiot, with EMphaSIS in ALL the STRANgest PLACEs.

This is a problem in the various public-facing things that I do, but especially with public speaking. It's really hard for me to bring ideas I'm passionate about to life, because I have this constant flatness to my voice. What are some specific exercises I can do, or people I can watch, to understand how to use my voice more as an instrument and less as a white noise machine?

I've looked at the Toastmasters PDF about voice and speaking, but I must be a few levels behind—their exercises have little arrows that go up and down over words to indicate pitch, but I sound like a poorly-programmed robot when I try to read them. It's like my voice just doesn't want to go up or down.
posted by peachfuzz to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Have a look at this book.
posted by gauche at 1:42 PM on May 7, 2012

Are you able/willing to hire a voice coach? Because that's my immediate thought for someone who isn't just interested in this vaguely, but has specific needs for public-speaking skills that aren't being met by their current vocal abilities.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:42 PM on May 7, 2012

Read metrical poetry and classic speeches aloud.

If you like baseball, listen to it on the radio.
posted by box at 1:46 PM on May 7, 2012

Take an acting or an improv class.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:12 PM on May 7, 2012

Best answer: Gather mp3s of people whose speaking styles you like—and which are relevant to the type of speaking you want to improve; for public speaking in general, maybe check out speakers from TED, or for interviewing, check out Terri Gross and Jesse Thorn or whoever your favorite interviewers are. If the kind of speaking you do is primarily off the cuff, find examples of speakers that you like on panels rather than giving speeches or talks. (Pulling audio from YouTube can be really useful for this.)

Go somewhere you won't be bothered, and where you won't feel silly talking out loud to yourself. Play the mp3s using something you can stop and start easily, and after short chunks of speech, stop the mp3 and repeat what the model just said, trying to mimic them as closely as possible in tone and cadence. Try to notice what's different in their voices from yours, and also try to notice if any patterns crop up: are they compelling because of patterns in their tone by itself, or does it have to do with the structure of what they're saying, as well?

In addition to listening to and mimicking people with the more expressive style you're looking for, choose a few people who have the kind of voice you describe as your own ("a sort of almost-sarcastic monotone") but who are, nonetheless, compelling speakers. David Rakoff comes to mind. Why are they compelling despite their relatively unexpressive voices? Figure it out, and cultivate that. Even if you don't achieve the expressive, variable-pitch style you describe, you can make your speech more compelling by paying attention to speed and cadence.

It's my opinion that most people who speak in public can become more compelling just by slowing down and pausing more often. It might feel weird, but giving yourself time to think while you speak can make you both more understandable and give a certain weight to your words.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:12 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Personally I think you should try to become more comfortable with your personal monotone style..

I'll repeat what ochedraco said for emphasis:

It's my opinion that most people who speak in public can become more compelling just by slowing down and pausing more often. It might feel weird, but giving yourself time to think while you speak can make you both more understandable and give a certain weight to your words.

The most fascinating speech I have ever heard was a sermon in Czech by the Archbishop of Prague. He spoke in a very slow quiet nasal monotone, but the words were most carefully enunciated, and they burned into my brain. I had to ask my translator what it was all about afterwards. ("Just some generic Catholic stuff about repentance and things").
posted by ovvl at 8:36 PM on May 7, 2012

Not sure if you do this, but don't upspeak. That's where you are making a statement but it comes out as a question. Your statement would arc and continue to move into a higher pitch even though you intend to end your statement with a period. Upspeaking makes one sound very uncertain about what they're saying, and are not to be taken seriously. A good example of upspeaking would be teenage girls. Again, I'm not sure if you do this, but it helped me a lot through graduate school when I had to defend myself publicly.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 6:19 AM on May 8, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, all. I especially like the advice to try making what I've got interesting! This is all really helpful, thanks!
posted by peachfuzz at 4:03 PM on May 8, 2012

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