Industry leaders, great speakers, influencers, those with public speaking training—some people just do things differently—whether it’s innovating, performing, planning, or breathing.
Yes, we do literally mean breathing.
Did you know that the difference between being viewed as powerful or timid lies in your breath?
In fact, in our decades of experience in public speaking training, we’ve found that breathing is the most critical and least taught tool in impactful public speaking. Not only is it essential to boost confidence and delivery on the TED stage, but it’s also necessary when you speak up in a meeting, connect with a client, or even ask for a promotion. This is because breathing is paramount to demonstrating executive presence.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a calming, centering and empowering tool for speakers, which is why it’s a cornerstone of our public speaking training. People always say “take a deep breath,” but when you do it correctly, you can instantly lower your heart rate and stay in the present moment, fostering a connection with your audience. It is the mission-critical tool behind a powerful presentation—because it works wonders.
So, what exactly is so wonderful about breathing, anyway? As long as you’re getting air, you should be okay, shouldn’t you?
Breathing, something that happens automatically for us each and every minute of every single day, when we embrace our breath consciously, can make you an indomitable speaker and lend you unforgettable presence.
That’s why the “O” in Moxie stands for “Oxygenate.”
Here’s the magic of human respiration: it’s the only body system that runs on autopilot until we take control. Through biofeedback, we can actually lower our heart rate and body temperature simply by taking a deep diaphragmatic breath.
Here’s what actors from Hollywood to Broadway know that us mere mortals often don’t: to control your voice, you also have to control your breath. What’s more, controlling your breath also brings anxiety under control.
How do we gain such control? It’s easy with a little practice, and it all begins just above the belly.
Don’t worry—with some practice—it’ll be as natural as breathing.
Meet Your Middle
Let’s talk about diaphragms. Ahem… of course we mean the thoracic diaphragm, the main muscle of human respiration. Yours sits beneath your lungs and above your abdominal cavity.
Your diaphragm is the great unsung hero of communication.
Day in, day out, it’s always working for you, driving your breathing. It’s the aspiratory autopilot you never knew you had.
There’s just one problem with the diaphragm: when you’re speaking it does the exact opposite of what the moment needs.
When you’re anxious—and we’re all anxious before some speeches ,no matter how much public speaking training we have — your body knows it needs more oxygen. But unless you intervene, your respiration shifts toward faster and shallower breaths, which will make you more anxious, which means even faster breaths…
…and you know what happens next…
Shallow breathers are the ones who wake up on the floor.
If you’d rather stay vertical, take control and speak from your gut.
The Power of Breath – Ease Stage Fright (and Anxiety in General)
“Regulate the breathing, and thereby control the mind.”
The advantages of deep oxygenation don’t end with a stronger voice and calmer nerves. It can even transform your relationship to your fear. In fact, it lets you walk toward your fear and embrace it.
Under stress, we tighten our muscles and hold the tension we’re feeling. That tension locks itself into our bodies. One of the first places tension manifests is in our breathing patterns. Anxiety makes us breathe shallow and more quickly. This results in the body perceiving itself as being under threat, so your automatic survival mechanism, the fight-or-flight response, takes over.
The physiological effects of anxiety include:
- Breathing from the tops of our lungs
- Less oxygen circulating in our entire system, including your prefrontal cortex
- Panic attacks or hyperventilation
Holding your breath also results in a quivering voice and the loss of vocal control, pitch, and tone—not great qualities during your keynote speech.
Shallow breathing restricts the fullness of sound and range your voice could potentially have. Your voice could sound squeezed or strained because you are talking from the top of your lungs. Forcing your voice to override this restriction is not an answer, as it can cause damage ranging from reasonably mild inconveniences, like a sore throat, to serious problems requiring surgical intervention.
The Vicious Cycle of Fear
The persistent speech anxiety that causes shallow breathing creates a vicious cycle. The less air we take in, the worse we feel, and the less effectively we speak. The less effectively we speak, the worse we feel, and the less air we take in. The only way to break the cycle is to master speech-saving breathing habits, which is why we start with the breath when working with anxious clients in our public speaking training.
When your brain gets enough oxygen, it is able to combat those jitters you feel before speaking. The stress response known as fight-or-flight constricts the blood flow to your brain and causes you to freeze-up like a deer in the headlights. Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic reaction, letting you step out from the proverbial headlights and continue frolicking—or, speaking.
Benefits of breath support
You look like a person. You act like a person. Why breathe like a dog? Shallow breaths may work for Chihuahuas, but you have five to six feet of human to oxygenate.
Efficacious breathing supplies your body with enough oxygen to pump blood head to toe (not tail!): your limbs, your lungs, your legs… and the most important organ in your body, the control center—your brain. This is oxygenation.
Like hitting the gym, going to yoga, or jazzercising, the benefits of breathing exercises are both physical and psychological. Physiologically, you should be using your lungs to their full capacity, rather than just the top third, giving your system more oxygen. That causes you to feel better, cope better, and think more clearly.
Diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing) is your speaking power tool. The more oxygen that you take in, the more you are able to lower your heart rate. This, in turn, grounds and centers you when you speak. Diaphragmatic breathing has been used as a tool for relaxation for thousands of years in yoga and meditation – and today, in public speaking training.
An additional benefit is that you are strengthening your physical capacity to increase your speaking insurance, sharpening your ability to efficaciously control complex language patterns, and creating a full reservoir of air for a powerful and resonant voice. The kind of voice that commands a room comes from diaphragmatic breathing and is often referred to as “the voice of leadership.”
Gerry (fake name, real client) had never spoken in public. When he and his wife came to see us for our public speaking training, Gerry needed help preparing for an upcoming fundraiser. We’ll never forget the story they shared.
Thirteen years earlier, their son had died of cancer, and while in the hospital, they learned that thousands of children die annually because they just can’t make it to their treatment facilities.
After their son passed away, Gerry and his wife set up a nonprofit to help kids get to the care they needed. Despite speaking with hundreds of patients, parents, and caregivers, in all those years, Gerry had never said a word from a podium. He was tense, nervous, too timid to speak in front of a large group.
What transformed Gerry’s presentation—what transformed his entire demeanor even—was rediscovering the breath. In the hospital he’d read his son Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go, so we started our breath work there. With tears dripping down his cheeks, we would read, pause, and breath. Read and breathe. Read and breathe.
Learning to control the breath unlocked something in Gerald. He found a calm and peace that revealed a voice he’d kept hidden inside his whole life.
And now? Gerry speaks all over the country, telling his son’s story, and the stories of the brave kids they’re helping across the nation.
All it took was learning how to breathe.
Inhale and Exhale
The key to diaphragmatic breathing is to go “low and slow.”
Imagine a balloon in your belly. Low means inflating that balloon with deep, sustaining breaths. You should feel your gut expanding down low. Slow is the pace with which you should inflate that balloon. No heaving or huffing, just slow and deliberate breaths.
All it takes to master low and slow breathing is a little practice.
Try this exercise from our public speaking training:
Lying on the floor, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Now take a deep breath and make your chest rise; that shallow inhalation is your automatic breath.
Now breathe deeply again, but as you inhale make your stomach rise instead. This is breathing with your diaphragm! Try it a few more times.
Do you notice how much more powerful it feels? How much more steady are your attention and respiration? That’s the power of belly breathing.
You can make it habit—you can retrain your body to breathe more efficiently—by noticing where your breath is as you go about your day, and correct accordingly. Soon it will be second nature.
When I first started acting, I was shocked at the difference diaphragmatic breathing made. It’s the difference between being heard on stage and being heard back in the cheap seats.
Breathing from your gut gives your voice an unmatched force. Find that force and use it.
Public Speaking Training 101: Oxygenate Action Items
Let Your Breath Give You Momentum. Ever wondered why a spinning top never topples? It seems to defy gravity, even when you try to knock it over. It’s because of momentum.
When we’re speaking, we’re a bit like tops—shallow breaths make us lose momentum, and we start to feel wobbly (sometimes literally!)
Deep breathing is what reestablishes our momentum and keeps us upright; it’s like adding more spin to the top. Breathing from your diaphragm gives your body energy and power, so that even if something does try to knock you over (figuratively or physically) you can stand strong.
Take a Shavasana. From Tim Farriss to Arianna Huffington, there’s no shortage of ultra-successful leaders who attribute significant portions of their success and mindset to the professional, personal, and performative benefits of focus-and-flow activities like yoga and meditation.
Find a style/practice that will help train your breathing, and make it a regular part of your schedule.
Breathe as deeply as you can to maximize that refreshing sensation and repeat. If it helps, incorporate this visualization exercise: picture your exhalation removing cloudy and spent air, then vizualize refilling your lungs with crisp, pure oxygen.
Test it Out. The next time you’re alone in a large room (or a crowded Starbucks if you want to expand your comfort zone), try this little experiment. Project a monotone ahhhh (or yogic Ommm) from your chest, then another from your gut. The difference will be impressive.
Fill a Balloon. My video on diaphragmatic breathing walks you through my favorite exercise for building executive presence, strengthening your breathing muscles, and amping up your speaking game.
Changing the way you breathe after doing it the same way for so long may seem daunting, but it isn’t hard to do. Plus, the benefits outweigh any reservations you may have. Take a few minutes out of your day and just remind yourself to breathe deeply. You’ll thank yourself later.
Love it? Want more breathing exercises and info? Download our Oxygenate Worksheet.
Still writing your speech? Check out our previous article, Public Speaking Training 101: Content and Preparation Before Your Speech.
For more on harnessing the power of your voice, try Public Speaking Training 101: Mastering Your Voice, Your Guide to Vocal Perfection.
Want ALL the info immediately? The ideas shared in this article are an excerpt from our Speak with Moxie e-book. To get the full action-packed book immediately at your fingertips, you can find it here.