Did you know that the difference between being viewed as powerful or timid lies in your breath? Or that if you take a deep breath, you can feel better both physically and mentally?
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. Whether it’s a confident presentation on the TED stage or an important virtual meeting or event, you need to control your breath to ensure you speak clearly and are heard.
This is because breathing is essential to demonstrating executive presence.
The Power Of Breathing
“Regulate the breathing, and thereby control the mind.”
When you take a deep breath, you calm your nerves, relax your body, and give it enough oxygen to enhance your voice. It can even transform your relationship with fear.
As you breathe, you focus, and it gives you the strength to walk toward your fear and embrace it.
This is because, under stress, we tighten our muscles and hold the tension we’re feeling in our body. And 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 important meeting or keynote speech.
Shallow breathing restricts the range and fullness of sound in your voice. It makes it 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.
Fear Of Public (Or Virtual) Speaking = Fear Of Axe Murderer
The anxiety you feel when about to speak in front of others is the exact same fear and anxiety our ancestors felt when facing a saber-toothed tiger. That’s because our brain only knows fear. It doesn’t know the difference between one cause or the other.
In those moments, your brain is flooded with hormones. Adrenaline is released which spikes your blood pressure and heart rate. Cortisol is released which primes your muscles to respond to an attack.
This is great for tigers—not so much for speaking. Appearing relaxed and at ease is one of the key indicators of confidence to an audience.
Speech anxiety causes shallow breathing and 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. Etc.
This fight-or-flight response constricts the blood flow to your brain and causes you to freeze-up like a deer in the headlights. When your brain gets enough oxygen, it is able to combat the jitters you feel before speaking. As you take a deep breath and focus on deep breathing, you activate your parasympathetic reaction, letting you step out from the proverbial headlights and continue frolicking—or, speaking.
Take A Deep Breath To Improve Your Public Speaking
Were you ever taught how to breathe?
In reality, most people take shallow breaths instead of using their diaphragms even when they are not afraid.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a calming, centering and empowering tool for speakers, which is why it’s a cornerstone of our public speaking training.
When you take a deep breath, and continue to do so, you can instantly lower your heart rate and stay in the present moment which improves your connection with your audience.
It is the mission-critical tool behind a powerful presentation because it works wonders.
When you utilize your breath consciously, you can become an indomitable speaker with an unforgettable presence.
Meet Your Middle
The thoracic diaphragm is the main muscle of human respiration. Yours sits beneath your lungs, above your abdominal cavity and 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 all feel anxious sometimes no matter how much public speaking training we’ve had—your body knows it needs more oxygen. But unless you intervene, your respiration shifts towards the faster and more shallow breaths associated with fear.
And the most shallow breathers are the ones who wake up on the floor.
If you’d rather stay vertical, take control, take a deep breath, and speak from your gut.
That’s why the “O” in Moxie stands for “Oxygenate.”
The magic of human respiration is that it’s the only body system that runs on autopilot until we take control.
And what actors from Hollywood to Broadway know that most people don’t is this: 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.
It may feel strange at first, but with practice, it’ll start to feel more natural.
How to Take A Deep Breath: The Right Way to 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.
Try this exercise from our public speaking training:
Lay on the floor (seriously, lay on the floor, trust us it helps) and 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 take a deep breath 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 your attention and respiration become?
That’s the power of belly breathing.
Try to make it a habit. 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 anyone first starts acting, they are shocked at the difference diaphragmatic breathing makes. 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.
Train Your Lungs Like A Bicep
Like hitting the gym, going to yoga, or jazzercising, improvements take time and building new habits takes discipline—but the results are always worth it.
Physiologically, you’ll learn to use your lungs to their full capacity meaning your body and mind are getting more oxygen. This causes you to feel better and think more clearly.
Diaphragmatic 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.
An additional benefit is that you are strengthening your physical capacity to increase your speaking endurance, sharpening your ability to control complex language patterns, and creating a full reservoir of air for a powerful and resonant voice.
Exercises You Can Try At Home
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.
Bonus 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. Inhale only from the chest and project a monotone ahhhh (or yogic Ommm) from your chest. Then take a deep breath and try again, focusing on exhaling from your belly. The difference will be impressive.
Fill a Balloon. Fia’s video on diaphragmatic breathing (above) walks you through her 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 will last a lifetime.
Take a few minutes out of your day and just remind yourself to breathe deeply. You’ll thank yourself later.
For even more guidance, many of 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.
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