If you have never stopped to ask yourself "How am I breathing today?" you're missing the most powerful technique for effective presentations. Take this quiz to find out.
How is my breathing today?
It's a question that we hardly ever ask ourselves, but it's a question which we need to ask ourselves if we want to become better public speakers.
Breath is the fuel of the voice. Just as a car needs good quality fuel to drive efficiently, so our voice needs good quality fuel to communicate efficiently and effectively with the people who are we are speaking to.
But, many of us never think about our breath. Breathing is an unconscious activity. Since your first cries as a baby — when you took your first breath of air — you have been breathing more or less completely unconsciously since the day you were born.
As a result, breathing effectively can be a hurdle for many public speakers. Years of unconscious breathing means that all of us have built up unhelpful habits in the way we breathe.
Over years and years, we've built up habitual tensions in our body. Tensions which restrict our breath and restrict our voice.
The Effect of Tension on Your Voice
All of us have our own personal tensions in our body. Perhaps your tension most often hangs out in your shoulders, or in your jaw, your neck, your back, or your chest.
Of course, a certain amount of tension is necessary to keep our body upright. If we had no tension in our body we would collapse, our limbs splayed out splat on the floor with all our muscles flopping around.
But only a very small amount of tension is required to stand up with a good posture. All other tension is unnecessary.
Unnecessary tension has a huge effect on our breath and, thus, on our voice.
Tension in the Neck and Shoulders
For instance, many of us hold tension in our shoulders and neck. The voice is very influenced by tension in this area because those muscles — from your shoulders up to the top of your throat — are the ones which support your larynx (aka. voice box).
If you have tension in the muscles of your shoulders and neck, it means that the breath cannot flow smoothly through your larynx. This plays a part in a whole load of different voice issues, e.g.: gravelly voices, weak or quiet voices, breathy or reedy voices, and even sore or damaged voices.
Releasing unnecessary tension from our body is a key skill for any voice user.
Personally, I hold lots of tension in my neck. If I put my hands up to my neck now and give myself a gentle massage, I can immediately feel a huge amount of tension falling away from my body.
Try it now for yourself, as you are reading this post.
Put your hands on your shoulders and just lightly massage the tension out of your body.
How to Reconnect With Your Breath in 4 Steps
"How is my breathing today?" is a very useful question to ask yourself when you are getting up to give a presentation.
When you combine this question with the simple breathing exercise below, it can have a powerful effect on your speaking voice.
Here's a simple exercise you can use to reconnect with your breath.
Step 1: Just Breathe Naturally
As you're reading this, just stand with your feet hip-width apart.
Just breathe naturally for a few breaths.
Don't try to breathe in a particular way, just stand and breathe as you would normally.
Step 2: Where Do You Feel Your Breath Strongest?
Where in my body do I feel my breath strongest?
What part of my body moves most when I breathe?
Is it my shoulders? My chest? My stomach or my belly? Is it some other part of my body?
Almost everyone will have a slightly different answer to this question because we all breathe slightly differently.
Now, ask yourself:
What is the quality of my breath?
Am I breathing deeply or shallowly? Quickly or slowly?
Am I breathing full lungfuls? Or only using a small portion of my lungs?
This step — simply standing and questioning your breath — is perhaps the most powerful part of the whole exercise.
You can do it before you stand up and give any presentation. Just stand with easy knees and notice how you are breathing (for the "easy knees" exercise cheat sheet download the free eBook).
The reason this step is so powerful is that it allows you a moment to disconnect from the world, to stop thinking, to stop worrying about what you're going to say in your presentation.
It allows you to simply focus on what your body is doing now.
Step 3: Breathe Into Your Belly
Put your hands on your belly — one hand or two hands, it doesn't matter. Place them just below your belly button.
Stand with easy knees, feet hip-width apart, and breathe into your hand as you stand there.
Feel your spine being long and free. Imagine a thread is supporting the crown of your head, supporting your spine going up to the sky.
And your shoulders are released from tension. If they feel a bit tense, roll your shoulders up back and down a few times.
Just breathe into your hands, into your belly.
You're not trying to push your hand out with your stomach. You're not trying to do anything else apart from just breathing into your hand.
Letting the air flow naturally in and out of your lungs.
Do this for 30 seconds or so. You don't need to time it or count. Just stand and breathe until you feel some tension drift from some part of your body. It will be a different part of the body for everyone.
Let your body just relax as you stand there, as you breathe in and out.
Step 4: Breathe Normally Again
Now drop your hands to your sides again.
Roll your shoulders up back and down.
Just breathe naturally for a few more moments. Don't try to breathe in a particular way. Just stand and breathe as you would normally.
Where in my body do I feel my breath most strongly now?
Is it my shoulders? My chest? My stomach? My belly? Or some other part of my body?
Finally, ask yourself:
How do I feel now compared to how I felt at the beginning?
Why This Exercise Works
What you have just done is a very simple exercise, but a very powerful one for public speakers and presenters.
What you've done is:
- You have checked in with your breath to find out how you are breathing and how your body has accumulated tensions over the day.
- You have breathed naturally and released some of that tension from those areas where your body has accumulated it most.
- You have breathed into your belly, allowing your body to fully use your lungs for just for a few breaths, to reset those tensions of your body and prepare yourself to speak.
- You have returned to normal breathing to check in with your body once again.
When your body is free from tension it can effectively communicate your ideas, your abilities and your personality to the world.
When we release ourselves from tension, we can use our voice most effectively.