The most important thing to do when you give a presentation is to breathe. That may sound like an obvious statement, but when presenting to a group it is easy to forget to breathe properly. When you forget to take good, deep breaths your lungs can run out of air before you finish a sentence, then your voice becomes soft and even crackles. An acting coach I worked with in New York referred to this as the “shallow breathing syndrome.”
Think about this way, if you are a shallow breather, and the most important point you want to convey to the audience comes at the end of a sentence, it is going to fall flat and limp, just like the dreaded dead fish handshake. With a sufficient supply of oxygen in your lungs, your voice cannot project throughout the audience, showing confidence and a command of the stage.
According to Harvard Business Review article titled, “Breathing Is the Key to Persuasive Public Speaking,” deep breathing exercises help to harness the power of breathing to speak with confidence and electricity. A deep breathing exercise that will help rid shallow breathing was taught to me by the New York actor coach. He said to stand straight, shoulders back, and chest out. Now take a deep breath through your nose by expanding your stomach and not your chest. Then begin to let out all of the air slowly through your mouth and squeeze every last air molecule out of your lungs. Repeat the exercise again and again and again. Once you are comfortable doing that, take the exercise to the next level. This time when you exhale slowly count: “1…2…3…4…5…” Master that and take it to an even level higher: Exhale saying the words, “Do Re Me Fa So La Ti Do.” As you practice and gain confidence, add more words like, “Hello, my name is [insert name].”
Caution! When doing this exercise for the first time, if you begin to feel lightheaded, stop and try another time until you get your stamina up — your lungs need to adapt to this technique. Once you have your stamina up, do ten reps, four times a day for a month. You should see improved results almost overnight. Even when you do not have a presentation scheduled practice every day. You can back down to ten reps each day you are not speaking. On presentation, days shoot for 20 reps.
In addition to strengthening your voice, proper breathing helps to keep sufficient oxygen in your blood and your brain. Having sufficient oxygen helps you focus on your presentation.
What happens when you blank out and can’t remember what you were going to say next? You are standing there with all of those eyes staring at you, and you begin to panic. When we panic on stage, what do we forget to do? That’s right: We forget how to breathe and become shallow breathers. When this happens, pause for a moment and take a deep breath or two. Chances are you will remember what comes next in your presentation, and you can carry on. If not, be honest with the audience and say, “I just had a brain cloud and forgot what I was about to say.” The audience won’t turn on you because you just showed them that you are a human being and even you, the person on the stage, can make a mistake.
As speakers, presenters and facilitators we need to be very cognizant of our breathing and the effect it is having on our voice. Allison Shapira, the author of the HBR article mentioned earlier, makes the comment that breathing is one of the most critical components in public speaking and it is one of the least taught subjects. Think of it this way, you may be the subject matter expert, but if your voice can’t command an audience and keep them engaged, then the audience can’t act on your words.
With a strong, powerful and confident voice, you will influence people’s lives, so practice your breathing. Inhale and expand your diaphragm. Exhale slowly and squeeze all the air out.