Updated: Jul 15
So, breathing techniques for public speaking... most articles about this subject seem to imply that ‘you have a problem and if you do what I suggest, anxiety and fear of public speaking will be a distant memory and you’ll rock in every conversation’.
You’re smart enough to know that such miracle cures are just enticing click bate for those desperate for a quick solution.
And all the articles seem to advise pretty much the same thing anyway:
Control your breathing
Breathe from your belly
Sit or stand properly
And who am I to contest these claims?
Well, my name is Ashley Howard, I'm a professional voice coach, I have an MA in Voice Studies from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, 12 years experience coaching professionals from most industries from most levels of seniority and I am the head of voice at a UK conservatoire actor training school. And what I can say from both personal and professional experience is that these statements hold some but not all of the truths about breathing and speaking. So why is breathing and talking at the same time a challenge for some people?
The Science Of Breathing Techniques For Speaking In Public
Breathing operates on the autonomic nervous system (ANS) - so you don’t have to think about it. It takes care of itself. It’s the reason you can go to bed at night and wake up still alive in the morning.
When all is ‘fine’ breathing tends to be ‘fine’, insomuch as it takes care of itself and we seldom notice it.
But when there is a change that seems potentially threatening (like expressing ourselves through speaking, whether it’s sharing our ideas and opinions, asking difficult questions, giving feedback etc) most of us experience a change in our breathing.
This is your sympathetic nervous system (part of your ANS) getting you ready: the heart rate increases, adrenaline courses through the body, the gut shuts down and your breathing becomes quicker. This is part of the survival instinct. It is often referred to as the fight or flight response, which is triggered when we feel danger. And you don’t have to have a fear of public speaking to experience this phenomena. You might love speaking and still the body will respond in the same way, as I said, to get it ready to perform better.
Either way, most of us perceive this experience as unwanted. So, what can you do?
Do You Fight It Or Welcome It?
This is an important question to ask yourself, because the answer to this question will change how you think about breathing.
Let’s talk about fighting it. And by fighting it I really mean ‘controlling’ it.
Fight It - How Do You Control Breathing When Talking
Now, there is good reason to choose this option.
Dr Alan Watkins in Being Brilliant Every Single Day suggests that under this sort of pressure we experience a ‘DIY lobotomy’ or ‘cortical inhibition’ meaning that the frontal lobe - the place we rely on for language, problem solving, emotional expression, judgement and memory - gets compromised. The reason being that we need to prioritise our energy for survival. This is part of why some people experience difficulty breathing while talking - because talking and coherent thinking are taken offline.
To get these functions back online, we rely on the parasympathetic nervous system, which can balance the freak-out of the sympathetic nervous system. Think of it like an understanding carer that comforts a distraught child. How does it balance it? Through breathing.
It turns out that breathing is one of the only ANS activities which can be brought under conscious control. Michael White suggests the ANS is like a ‘team of horses [...] put the breath as lead horse and the rest of the team will follow’.
This is clearly why some of us gravitate to meditation, yoga or exercise where breathing plays a key role. Any activity that involves bringing breathing into our conscious awareness offers an opportunity to control it and therefore pacify this freak-out. And it really works. Watkins continues by saying that changing the rhythm of breathing can regulate the rhythm of the heart which in turn rehabilitates these cognitive skills and therefore coherence. Quite simply he suggests breathing in for four seconds, pausing slightly, breathing out for four, and then pausing again.
It’s obvious, right? I remember being on the playground at primary school having fallen and grazed my knee and the teacher saying ‘breathe in slowly and breathe out slowly, breath in... and breath out...’. So, it’s simple.
Well, it may work for grazing your knee but for speaking there is one big issue.
Whilst this technique is fine before you are about to speak and after you’ve spoken, what about whilst you are speaking? I just can't see how this can be one of the proper breathing techniques for public speaking.
You can’t stop mid thought to take 8 to 10 seconds to regulate your breathing rhythm. It supposes that if you can start well you’ll continue well. But we know this isn’t true.
How many times have you felt that you’re speaking well, but then someone yawns or checks the time or looks down and starts typing on their phone which makes you question your value, you lose faith and then things unravel? I’ll come back to this in a second.
So whilst it might appear that controlling your breathing can restore cognitive function and increase your ability to think and speak coherently, it seems that it is only a before and after technique.
Let’s talk about welcoming this response instead of controlling it.
How To Welcome It
Barry McDonagh’s book Dare about releasing oneself from anxiety and panic attacks is based not on controlling or managing the problem but in part by welcoming it or embracing it. It seems counterintuitive and yet his coaching and programmes are revered.
Consider the increasing popularity of mindfulness and meditation, practices that teach awareness instead of control as a means by which to achieve a better functioning mind- further evidence of a growing interest in this perspective.
So how might we do this when speaking?
It begins as a change in perspective. Think of breathing as a barometer (an instrument that can forecast changes in weather). If your breathing speeds up, slows down, becomes shallow or held, this ‘information’ might be used to check-in to what specifically has caused the imbalance.
Nine times out of ten the imbalance is caused by thoughts: ‘I’m not prepared enough’, ‘what if they ask me a difficult question?’, ‘why are they frowning’, ‘that was a stupid thing to say, I bet she says “no” now’. You know what I’m talking about.
Without this barometer-like awareness of your breathing, you may not even notice that you are having these thoughts, and so the car - as it were - essentially gets hijacked and the engine shuts down.
If we were able to notice the imbalance in our breathing (and breathing from your stomach is vital for this - find out more here), and become aware of our thoughts, at least there is then an option to consider how we respond to these thoughts instead of merely being at their mercy.
Whilst my shelves are lined with books about human psychology, I’m not able to answer the question about ‘how’ one goes about responding to thoughts (I have opinions but I’m no authority). But it seems to me that being able to notice them in the first instance is an essential first part of that process.
And this is something that you can do during speaking. In those moments between one thought ending and another beginning - as you take a breath - you might pay attention to the quality of that breath. Does it feel easy, tense, deep, shallow etc... Which might prompt lightening speed questions, like ‘why does my breath feel like this? What’s on my mind?’. With time, you might even be able to answer those questions in the moment and even do something about them.
So, how do you breathe when public speaking? It's your choice. Whether you opt to control or welcome the survival response, or find something in between, your breathing clearly has the power to dramatically influence what happens when you speak.
Now, before you go, what about this ‘breathing from your stomach’ business? Every article I read online before writing this blog post hailed belly breathing as the answer to all our speaking woes. So if you want to crack this breathing code and dig a bit deeper, I set the record straight and give you a simple exercise to learn this go-to breathing technique in this post.