1. a breathing in, as of air into the lungs; inhaling. 2. an inspiring or being inspired mentally or emotionally. 3. an inspiring influence; any stimulus to creative thought or action (Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition).
Surprised to hear that the first dictionary definition of “inspiration” has to do with breathing? Yet that’s completely appropriate, since clear thinking as well as a strong speaking voice to deliver one’s opinions both begin with proper breathing.
Life itself also depends on breathing, of course. But there are clear differences between “vegetative breathing” or breathing for life, and breathing for speech using diaphragmatic breathing. (To reach peak efficiency and perform "in the Zone" as a speaker, download our cheat sheet, "How to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking.")
Before we discuss those differences, let’s look at why good breathing techniques are essential for reducing public speaking anxiety. For some solid reasons having to do with human anatomy and physiology, proper breathing places us in the right frame of mind and body to handle anxiety. This is apart from the benefits of good breathing for brain function and the controlled exhalation necessary for sustained speech.
Actors, who depend upon proper breathing techniques to create effective vocalization as well as reduce stage fright, put it this way: If you’re in control of your breathing, you’re ready to give a powerful performance; if you’re not, you aren’t. That’s a dramatic way of saying that breathing helps determine everything that’s going on with you physically and mentally in terms of performing, including public speaking.
Calming the Storm
If you struggle with public speaking anxiety, the first order of business is often quieting down the noise and inner chaos interfering with your comfort level and focus. Good breathing is not only ideal for getting you calm and concentrated—it’s one of the few ways that you can reach that state.
Think about it for just a moment and you’ll realize that a high level of anxiety while speaking is a bruising experience: you feel as though you’ve been beaten up mentally, and sometimes physically as well. Add to this a loss of sleep or concentration, constant worry, the physiological toll that serious performance anxiety takes, and the results of speaking fear can be profound. In addition, the extreme loss of control you suffer while speaking can make it seem as though an electrical storm were taking place inside your brain and body!
To become a confident, directed, and dynamic speaker, you have to get this emotional and physical disturbance under control. You need to enter the eye of the storm where things are calm and quiet. From this peaceful center you can heal, rejuvenating yourself and “turning down the volume” as you begin to apply appropriate coping mechanisms.
The Willow Tree Visualization
Here’s a visualization that may help make this clearer: Imagine a willow tree in the middle of a thunderstorm. High winds torture the slender branches of that tree, thrashing them violently, and the willow’s wisp-like leaves make the movement all the more dramatic. That’s what it can feel like when you lose control because of excessive nervousness and the inner chaos of extreme speech anxiety. . . . But now visualize the trunk of the willow tree during the same storm: it’s unmoving, stable, unaffected by anything except true hurricane-force winds.
As a first step to gaining control of your breathing, I’d like you to imagine that your breathing is like that tree trunk in the storm: steadfast, unwavering—the source of your calmness and stability.
When all else seems to be out of control as your anxiety spikes in a speaking situation, remember that your breathing is your center. You must always come back to the BREATH, for that is where life itself and serenity exist.
If you get to that place, you'll be where relaxation and control of the speaking situation begin. It's the reliable physical starting point for giving successful, enjoyable, and memorable performances as a speaker.
Takeaways from this blog:
- The first dictionary definition of "inspiration" has to do with breathing!
- If you're in control of your breathing, you're ready to give a powerful performance.
- Your breath is your center. Come back to the breath for serenity.
- Breathing properly gives you control over the chaos you feel during public speaking anxiety.