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How to Breathe the Right Way to Boost Your Public Speaking Power

How to Breathe the Right Way to Boost Your Public Speaking Power

Want to turn on your superhero potential as a presenter? Here's how to breathe the right way to boost your public speaking power!

The way you breathe is linked to the way you experience the world and respond to it.

For instance, breathing that is inhibited or constricted leads to constriction in your responses and to disharmony. An everyday example you can easily relate to (and perhaps notice in yourself) is shallow, upper-chest breathing, so common in our stress-filled society.

Whether such breathing is due to unconscious bad habits, or not wanting to reveal that you have a tummy (!), the act of limiting the respiration process like this is harmful both physically and spiritually.

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Breathing in that way is like wearing tightly fitting armor that can stifle your emotional responses, affect how you relate to others, and even block you from growing and evolving.1 This practice of shallow upper-chest breathing is also harmful to the production of a strong and resonant voice, which I discuss in the next chapter on vocal dynamics.

Are You Still Breathing Naturally (Like a Baby)? 

To understand and use breathing for greater public speaking presence, we have to start with the production of the breath. In other words, as a speaker you have to know how to breathe naturally.

Does that sound strange? The truth is we all breathe naturally when we are babies and toddlers, and probably through childhood. But many of us develop bad habits after those early years. We start breathing in ways that actually work against us when it comes to having a strong stage presence for public speaking.

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To breathe properly and productively for the speaking stage, you must practice diaphragmatic breathing. This simply means breathing with the help of your diaphragm: the dome-shaped muscle located below your lungs and above your abdomen. The body’s natural breathing sequence depends upon the diaphragm. Here’s how it works:

When you inhale, your diaphragm moves downward and flattens somewhat, creating room above it for the expanding lungs. As the diaphragm flattens, it descends toward the abdominal area below it. Since the interior of the body has no spare real estate, your abdomen or “belly” has to go somewhere as the diaphragm pushes it out of the way. Since your ribs on each side and spine in the back inhibit any movement in those directions, your belly moves forward. All of this explains why your abdominal wall bulges outward slightly when you inhale.

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When you exhale, your lungs naturally grow smaller. Now your diaphragm—no longer having to remain flat and out of the way—can rise and return to its relaxed dome shape. Since your belly (i.e., your abdominal area) is no longer being pushed out of the way from above, it too returns to its former position, moving inward. Therefore, each time you exhale, your belly goes back in

To summarize: your belly moves outward when you inhale, and inward when you exhale. Think of a balloon inflating and deflating and you’ll get the picture. The classic example of this diaphragmatic action is a baby lying on its back in a crib: the baby’s belly rises and falls noticeably with each inhalation-exhalation cycle.

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Practicing Diaphragmatic Breathing 

Try it for yourself right now. Stand up or lie down—it doesn’t matter which. Breathe slowly and deeply as you notice the movement in your abdominal area.

Does your belly move out (if you’re standing) or up (if you’re lying down)? 

If not—if your belly moves inward when you inhale—you’re breathing “backwards.” This reverse breathing action isn’t harming you in any way, and it isn’t all that rare. But it inhibits your diaphragmatic breathing, since it doesn’t allow room for your lungs to expand fully once the diaphragm gets out of the way. The diaphragm is actually moving upward, which prevents full expansion of the lungs. Therefore, it can leave you less than fully oxygenated when you’re speaking.

In other words, breathing in the wrong direction, along with breathing shallowly, keeps your body from gaining a free and effortless reservoir of air! And that is exactly what you need when you’re giving a presentation and require a voice that’s well supported and projected by breath. If you’re in the grip of speech nerves, this whole situation is worsened because you’re probably breathing too shallowly to begin with.

It’s a simple fact of your anatomy: diaphragmatic breathing provides you with the oxygen you need because your lungs are able to expand fully. That oxygen travels from your lungs into your bloodstream nourishing every cell in your body. It is also the ideal breathing pattern for a well-oxygenated brain while speaking!

1 Dennis Lewis, Free Your Breath, Free Your Life (Boston: Shambhala, 2004), 99, quoting Karlfried Graf von Durckheim. 

This article is excerpted from my book, Speak for Leadership: An Executive Speech Coach's Secrets for Developing Leadership Presence in Public SpeakingFind it on my author's web site and on Amazon.

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Cropped headshot for Speak for Leadership back cover -- 8.30.21

Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking and overcoming speaking fear. His company, The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching  and corporate group training worldwide. In 2022 for the ninth consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of the World’s Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of the Amazon Best-Seller How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speakingwas named in 2019 as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." His handbook for presenting in videoconferences, Speaking Virtually offers strategies and tools for developing virtual presence in online meetings. His latest book is Speak for Leadership: An Executive Speech Coach's Secrets for Developing Leadership PresenceContact Gary here. 

Main photo credit: Zac Durant on


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