Do you know how to use diaphragmatic breathing for effective public speaking? Here are 3 ways you may need to up your breathing game!
Breathing for speech differs in important ways from breathing for life—and you may be doing it wrong.
Let me explain.
You’re already an accomplished breather, of course, or you wouldn’t be reading this article. Life itself depends upon breathing from the moment you leave the womb. But have you ever been trained in using breathing skills effectively for public speaking?
Unless you’re an actor or an opera singer, chances are the answer to that question is no.
Diaphragmatic Breathing: The Key to Powerful Public Speaking
The importance of breathing in oral communication becomes obvious when you realize that the energy that powers your voice is exhaled breath. Air passing upwards in your trachea excites the vocal folds in your larynx. Those vocal folds (the thyroarytenoid muscles or “vocal cords”) then vibrate thousands of times per second to create the sound others hear when you speak.
Without breath, in other words, voice itself isn’t possible. Add to this equation the fact that your voice needs to be projected as sound waves across space to reach your listeners. Doesn’t it make sense, then, to learn how to use your breathing mechanism to greatest advantage when you speak?
I was interested (and somewhat amazed) to discover just how critical mindful breathing is to voice production for the stage, when I started voice classes at the acting academy I trained at in London. “Voice” was the course title, but for the first two weeks, we didn’t utter a sound.
We simply learned how to breathe. Here's where you can learn the same powerful technique concerning how to breathe diaphragmatically.
3 Ways to Use Breathing to Improve Your Public Speaking
So let’s look at three fundamental ways that breathing for public speaking differs from breathing for life.
Difference #1: Active vs. Passive Breathing. The type of breathing you use in daily living is called passive or vegetative breathing. As that label indicates, this type of breathing doesn’t take much effort. Sitting at your desk, or using your voice to carry three inches from your mouth to your phone, aren’t activities that call on you to use the fullness of your breathing mechanism.
Capacity is an issue that matters here. When your respiration cycle is this passive, you’re apt to breathe shallowly taking in only a small amount of air. Public speaking, however, requires your escaping breath to both activate your vocal folds and project your voice out to an audience. That’s requires active breathing. To improve your breathing for public speaking, then, become aware of breathing more deeply. Allow yourself a full reservoir of air, for that's what gives your voice resonance and carrying power.
Difference #2: Where the Action Takes Place. To breathe beneficially for public speaking, you need to correctly use your breathing mechanism, i.e., the anatomical structures that exist to allow you to respirate. This is where you may have developed bad habits as a speaker (many people do), and so work against yourself in breathing effortlessly and efficiently.
There are basically three ways to use the breathing mechanism, and only one of them is the correct way. If you raise your shoulders each time you inhale, that’s called clavicular breathing (named after your clavicle or collarbone), and it’s just wasted energy. The same is true if you breathe thoracically (overly expanding the thorax or chest area).
The third and correct way is diaphragmatic breathing, in which your diaphragm helps initiate maximum lung expansion. It's easy to know if you're breathing diaphragmatically because your abdominal area should move outward on each inhalation and return upon exhalation. If you’re not breathing this way, you simply won’t have the lung power to sound like you mean business.
Difference #3: Controlling the Respiration Cycle. Your level of control in the breathing cycle is where you can make it all come together to be in charge of your speaking performance.
Why is that necessary? Well, did you know that in English the most important word usually comes at the end of a sentence? (Look at what I just wrote: “at the end of the sentence” is in fact the point I’m making with that sentence!) We all know that the most famous utterance in English is “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Shakespeare didn't use some other arrangement that buries the central question of whether Hamlet should do away with himself.
When you breathe passively, your inhalation and exhalation are about equal, i.e., they have the same duration. With speaking, however, the situation is entirely different. Remember that exhaled air is the source of the produced voice. So every time you express an idea, you’re likely doing in on one breath. Of course, I realize that some ideas take many sentences to be expressed, but I think you know what I’m getting at here: Each time you speak, you are controlling your exhalation since it is tied to the expression of your idea itself. So the more you can control your breath so you’re able to punch that idea that comes at the end of your utterance, the more reliably your listeners will hear what you’re saying!
Breathing and Meditation: A Path to Overcome Fear of Public Speaking
So now you have three skills at your disposal that can help you be a more aware and accomplished speaker: 1) breathing actively and deeply, 2) using the right breathing mechanism, and 3) controlling the respiration cycle.
Would you be interested in being a calmer and more focused speaker as well?
If so, conscious breathing is your prescription here as well. Calm, focused, attentive breathing is the gateway to mindfulness—the state of being fully in the present moment when you speak. From establishing rapport with listeners, to using my free e-book on how to achieve presence and charisma, attaining mindfulness is a skill that belongs in your speaker’s toolbox.
Need a technique to show you how to overcome fear of public speaking? Again, diaphragmatic breathing is your ticket, for it will help slow your rapid heart rate, activate your parasympathetic or calming nervous system, send oxygen to your brain, and bring you from a state of chaos and nervous self-consciousness, to one of being centered and focused.
Interested in a relaxation technique that will help you combine breathing and mindfulness? Take a look at my .mp3 audio tape "Time to Relax: A Meditation Exercise for Reducing Stress."
If you’re like some of my speech coaching clients who ask concerning an upcoming presentation: “When should I start to breathe diaphragmatically and become conscious about controlling my breathing?”—my answer to you as well is simple:
“Always.” Breathing for speech should be a full-time pursuit for you, as well as being one of the habits that will assist you in becoming better at public speaking. And remember this: One of the meanings of the word inspiration is . . . to breathe!
Can you think of a better reason to breathe effectively at every opportunity?
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