Everyone knows that we breathe all the time, without even thinking about it. In fact, we take in and let out more than 10,000 liters of air every day. That’s a lot of work, yet we’re scarcely aware of it.
How lungs work
But did you know that it can pay big dividends if you become aware of your breathing? It’s true. If your work involves conversing with clients, giving presentations, or any other activity that calls for live verbal communication, you can improve your performance by increasing your awareness of your breathing patterns and taking control of them. The good news is, it’s not even difficult to do.
Speaking Anxiety – Body Responses
As you might be painfully aware, one of the effects of anxiety about public speaking (also known as stage fright) is rapid, shallow breathing. What brings this about?
Emotional stress activates the hypothalamus, a part of the brain with many important functions, including the “fight or flight” response. This is a nearly instant, short-term set of reactions to threats perceived in the environment. A fire, a poisonous snake ready to strike, a car swerving right in front of yours – or, for many people, having to speak to an audience. While this response is triggered, flash changes occur in heart rate, breathing, muscle tension and other body functions. The reaction is nothing to worry about, of course. It’s just a genetically programmed response. Once the stress or threat has passed, your body returns to its normal, more relaxed state.
If a dangerous snake crosses your path, you can step (or jump!) out of the way. The threat is over and you can calm down again. Unfortunately, when you’ve got to speak before a group you can’t usually just jump out of the way (literally or figuratively). No, you have to face the situation and go ahead. Since you can’t avoid the stressful situation, there’s not relief from the reaction. So your feelings of anxiety can build and build. It can be awfully unpleasant and uncomfortable.
Fortunately, you can do something to calm the reaction and regain some composure. This is where breathing comes in. A few minutes before you’re due to begin your presentation,
1. Take a slow, deep breath through your nose
2. Hold the breath for about four seconds
3. Exhale through your mouth
Go through these steps a few times and you’ll begin to feel your body relaxing – leaving you in a better state to begin your performance.
If you like, you can put one hand on your stomach and focus your attention on its rise and fall as you breathe deeply.
Presentation in Progress: Keep Breathing!
Proper breathing shouldn’t stop with the pre-presentation drill just described. Do your best to keep on breathing calmly and deeply as you’re speaking. (You’ll probably want to take your hand off your stomach, though!)
You’ve probably read about how a person’s good posture gives others an impression of confidence, credibility, and persuasiveness. What’s often omitted, though, is that proper posture also facilitates proper breathing. If you naturally stand straight (but not rigid), with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes pointed forward, you allow your natural energy to flow freely up and down the body. Slouching, tilting your head to one side, putting most of your weight on one leg and other posture errors all interfere with deep, calming breathing.
Without practice and perhaps some good coaching, almost everyone tends to speak much too rapidly when they get in front of an audience. Rushed speech not only makes you very hard to understand, it also interferes with proper breathing. If you begin speeding through your presentation, you’re forced to take short, shallow breaths. You feel as though you’re short of air (because you are!), and that adds to your feelings of anxiety.
Between being out of breath and feeling increasingly anxious, it’s extremely difficult to connect and interact with your audience, express your thoughts clearly and enjoy your performance. (Yes, it’s actually possible to enjoy speaking to a group.) So a crucial part of preparing for a presentation is working out what your pace will be. Speak slowly enough to that you can continue to breathe properly – and to be easily understood, too. Slow down!
One More Breath Tip
Here’s another trick that can come in quite handy. Before each phrase or sentence, inhale a bit more deeply than usual. You have to practice this until you can do it discretely and inaudibly, without any distracting sounds or movements. This quick deep breath helps support your voice until the end of your sentence – which is often where you make your most important points.
All these breathing tips become easier, more natural and more effective if you practice them regularly, especially in the days and hours leading up to a presentation. Yoga or meditation are also great options for developing good breathing, but breath practice can be done almost anywhere, any time. Need a break from writing that financial report? Breathe. Waiting in a long queue? Breathe. Stuck in traffic? Breathe. About to hit the hay? Breathe.
Regular breathing exercise – even if it’s just brief – can go a long way toward improving your presentation skill.