May 03 2012

Breathe Life Into Your Talk

Published by at 3:21 PM under Executive Presence,Presence

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It’s the day of your presentation. You eat your favorite day-of-talk breakfast.  You warm up your voice and say a prayer.  When you arrive, you shake lots of hands, set up your merchandise at the back of the room, and get yourself motivated to talk.  When they call your name, you tell the obligatory joke about the common mispronunciation.  You step up to the podium, look out at your audience with a smile and start off with that story that works so well.  You ease into the talk and, after awhile, it’s smooth sailing. In the end, you “stick the landing” and leave the audience informed and excited.

Later, as you reflect on your performance, you recognize that you didn’t feel like yourself until you “warmed up.”  You sense that your opening was a little stiff. Even after hundreds of presentations, the worst part is still the first few minutes.

Does this scenario seem familiar? If it does, you are in good company—professional speakers all over experience this problem. The good news is there is a solution and it doesn’t require expensive voice lessons or coaching (though, as a vocal coach, I am always happy to take on new clients).

Let’s consider some important facts: In the first 30 seconds you speak people are assessing your voice rather than listening to what you say. They are determining how your voice aligns with how you look and how you present yourself. If they don’t know you, they’re trying to figure out who you are. If they do know you, they’re trying to figure out what’s going on with you. Many people fail to realize that their speaking voice is just as important to conveying their message as the clothes they are wearing or the words they are saying.  The point is, if you don’t feel like yourself in those first few minutes of speaking, you won’t sound authentic—and if you don’t sound authentic, you’ll undermine your credibility before you even have chance to get to your message.

So the question is, How do you make sure you sound genuine in those early moments of speaking? The answer: Breathe.

Simple.  Everyone breathes.  It’s one of the most natural things we do; however, the problem is when we get nervous or stressed, we forget to breathe.  Breathing is the antidote to stress, and here’s why:  First, breathing relaxes and energizes us all at once. Second, when we breathe deeply, our larynx relaxes and our voice settles into a comfortable, natural sound.  And finally, breathing encourages a good speaking pace that’s not too slow or too fast, allowing time for people to consider what we’re actually saying.

Here are three things you can do to incorporate good breathing into your speech.

1.    Practice proper breathing. Start by breathing in through your nose. Imagine you are a vessel filling up with air like a vase being filled with water.  Fill your abdomen first, then your lower ribs, and then all the way up to your chin.  As you exhale, your lower abs should compress as though you were rolling up a tube of toothpaste.  Repeat, but this time, as you exhale, blow the air out loudly as if you were extinguishing candles on a birthday cake. Repeat three more times, always breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Pay special attention to your transverse abdominus, the most essential abdominal muscle for supporting your voice.  To find out more about this important muscle and to learn how to strengthen it, you can find a video on YouTube that will take you through the steps here. 

Practice when you have a quiet moment alone at home or the office. You can practice while sitting or standing. You can even practice while exercising at the fitness center. I find it particularly therapeutic to practice proper breathing while driving, especially when another driver unexpectedly pulls out in front of me!

2.    Breathe into your words.  The next time you practice for a presentation, take time to inhale and exhale deeply five times before you start to speak. Then take one more deep breath and breathe into your first words. Stop after every few sentences or ideas, and take another deep breath.  Practice this several times. After a few sessions you’ll be surprised at how much more aware you are of your breathing. More importantly, you’ll immediately be aware of the lack of air when you are not breathing correctly.

3.    Just do it.  Not to steal Nike’s tagline, but the next time you give a talk, use what you have been practicing. Take time to inhale and exhale deeply just before you get up to speak.  Then, as you start to speak, breathe into your first words.  Do this every time you give a presentation. You’ll be more relaxed and you’ll come across as authentic, thus improving your credibility.

Breathe, breathe, breathe and breathe again.  Of course, breathing isn’t everything.  Talent, skill and your message are also important, but if you are short of breath, you’ll be hard pressed to demonstrate those wonderful talents and skills, and you’ll struggle to make your message come to life. And if that doesn’t work, call me. I’m taking new clients.

This article first appeared as Voice Forward, on Craig Senior’s Blog, Public Speaking Fun and Easy.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Breathe Life Into Your Talk”

  1. IanGon 03 May 2012 at 5:33 PM

    Great article, Kate. I’m reminded of the instructor in my yoga class who always spends the first few minutes getting the class to focus on our breathing. Yoga teaches the technique of breathing in and out through the nostrils and the throat slightly constricted on the exhale so you get a “Darth Vader” sound. This is called Ujjayi breathing or “victory breath”.

  2. kateon 03 May 2012 at 5:41 PM

    Thanks for the comment, Ian. Yoga has been hugely influential in my study of voice as well as my practice. I first learned about “intention” from yoga: we set our intention for each practice when we go the mat. And the physical process of breathing for yoga is very similar, though the constriction of the throat is not something we encourage when speaking or singing, lol! K8

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