For something that we do automatically, breathing is pretty important. Although that regular inflation and deflation of your lungs is involuntary most of the time, it remains the case that, unless you exhale, you’re more likely – of course – to expire.
More interestingly, though, if you actually start to think about your breathing you can take charge of your speaking in exciting ways. That’s why it’s worth considering breathing separately even to voice – although the two have a strong relationship.
Of course, good breathing control provides the flow of air that is necessary to speak confidently. Speaking quietly can be about poor breath control; so can speaking rapidly. Stumbling mid-sentence, croaking mid-word, or simply running out of “puff” – all this can be a symptom of breathing that isn’t as controlled as it should be.
I don’t mean to make you nervous. Like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time, speaking and breathing simultaneously can at first feel even more difficult if you have to think about it. The good news, though, is that breathing can help reduce that fear.
So take a deep breath. That’s a cliché for a good reason: deep breathing releases nervous energy, and can help calm you before you even start to speak. Try the yawn technique: before you go on stage, open your mouth wide and yawn until you feel full of air; then expel it really slowly. You’ll feel more relaxed and your jaw should feel looser, too.
It’s counter-intuitive, perhaps, but the yawn technique works because to speak well you need to breathe out, not in. Lots of new speakers think that they should fill their lungs with oxygen, as if speaking is the art of simply letting it all out again. In fact, by breathing out you will automatically fill with new air – and relax more effectively as you do so!
Breathing exercises can also develop your speaking muscles. For example, your diaphragm is the muscle just below your ribcage that you’ll need to develop in order to control your breath effectively (because breathing from your chest constricts many of the spaces in your body that need to be open for good speaking). In this way, the more you practice breathing consciously, the better you will get at it.
So practice in the shower, when your computer’s booting up, or in the queue for coffee. Put your shoulders back and your hands on your stomach, and then take a deep breath. Your shoulders shouldn’t go up and your stomach shouldn’t poke out as you fill your lungs. Hold your breath for the count of three and exhale for the count of six … then repeat.
You’re now practicing – and thinking about – good breathing. Congratulations: you’re a better speaker already.