Breathe Life Into Your Public Speaking

Do you know how to breathe?

You will take hundreds of millions of breaths in your lifetime. The way you breathe can make the difference between being a healthy, happy person or a stressed-out, unhealthy one. And when you’re sharing your message with your fellow humans, your breathing can determine whether you come across as a confident, persuasive, skillful speaker, or a rambling bundle of nerves.

Breathing is so vital to success that it’s bonkers how many people go through life without learning how to do it properly.

The good news is that it’s never too late to learn. With some simple changes to your breathing habits, you can become a better, happier speaker. While it does take some practice, it’s not difficult.

Your breathing impacts your public speaking in three key areas: nervousness, volume/projection and pacing.

To understand how this works, let’s dig into the details of how you breathe.

Breathing is controlled by the diaphragm, a muscle that sits right below your lungs. (think about last time you got the hiccups - that was your diaphragm contracting over and over).

When you’re relaxed, you breathe deeply into your lungs. Some people call this “belly breathing” because your diaphragm pushes down to make room for more air in your lungs, causing your belly to puff out a little bit. This kind of breathing optimizes the amount of oxygen entering your body.

By contrast, when you’re stressed out, you breathe shallowly, and most of the movement is in your chest and shoulders. This is part of the body’s natural response to danger, but it’s unhealthy to do it all the time. Most of us walk around in a constant state of stress and shallow breathing, which deprives our brains of the oxygen we need for high performance.

When you start breathing more deeply, you’ll naturally notice improvements in your public speaking:

  • You’ll be more relaxed and confident.

    The breath-emotion connection goes both ways: your stress level affects your breathing, but your breathing also affects your stress level. There’s a reason why your meditation app doesn’t tell you to “breathe rapidly and shallowly.” When your breathing is shallow, your mind becomes agitated. When your breathing becomes deeper, the mind relaxes. So when you feel stage fright coming on, belly breathing can help - and nobody can tell that you’re doing it.

  • Your voice will be louder and more powerful.

    When I was a cheerleader in high school (it’s true!), we learned how to bellow like foghorns so that audiences could hear us in crowded gymnasiums and on outdoor fields. Here’s the secret: it’s all in the diaphragm. Without enough air in your lungs, it’s hard to project your voice. Your throat has to pick up the slack by yelling, which is harder for your audience to hear and harder for your vocal chords to sustain. Instead, use your breath to get that nice booming voice that doesn’t require a microphone.

  • You’ll have more control over your speed.

    One of the most common bits of public speaking advice that people get is to “slow down,” and Sweet Murphy, that might be the most useless tip since “imagine the audience in their underwear.” The speed at which you speak is a habit that you’ve been developing since the day you were born. The only way to change it is to replace it with new habits. Shallow breathing worsens speed-talking because it raises your anxiety (which makes you more likely to speed through your presentation), whereas belly breathing slows you down. Deep breaths don’t just make you more relaxed. They also take longer, which forces you to pause from time to time.

Breathing is a simple, elegant solution to many public-speaking pitfalls, but it’s not a quick fix. I used to write “BREATHE” throughout my speaking notes, in the hopes that one word would magically transform me from an anxious, high-strung Nova Scotian into some suave hybrid of Barack Obama and a yoga instructor. Instead, I would speed through every presentation without even noticing the world scrawled across the pages.

In order to reap the benefits, you need to make belly breathing a habit. That way, you do it unconsciously even when you’re under pressure.

Here are some exercises for bringing breath into your everyday life - and getting comfortable with the silence that results from it. If you have any respiratory, heart or other medical conditions that could be exacerbated by changing your normal breathing patterns, please check with your doctor before trying them.

  • Sit comfortably with one hand at the top of your chest and one hand on your belly.

    Take a few breaths and see where you feel the most movement. Is it in your belly or in your chest? Try to take a few breaths by gently puffing your belly out on the inhale and gently pushing your belly button towards your spine on the exhale. You want to be feeling very little movement in your chest and shoulders when you do this. Most experts recommend breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.

  • Once you have the hang of belly breathing, try to lengthen your breaths.

    Work your way up to inhaling for three seconds, holding your breath for two seconds, then exhaling for four seconds. This is a common mindfulness exercise that lends itself well to public-speaking prep. You can experiment with longer breaths - I like to inhale for four, hold for two and exhale for eight - but always respect your body’s limits and don’t do anything that causes you to feel light-headed or uncomfortable.

  • Incorporate your breathing into your speaking.

    Try reading this paragraph out loud, taking a full 3-second inhale after every sentence and exhaling as you read the next sentence. If you still have breath left after you finish a sentence, let it all out and take a full inhale before moving on.

"Yes, they are elves," Legolas said. "and they say that you breathe so loud they could shoot you in the dark." Sam hastily covered his mouth.
― J.R.R. Tolkien

This feels (and sounds) weird the first few times you do it. Resist the temptation to shorten your breath or speed it up! This exercise, with all of the awkward space between sentences, will re-train your mind to be comfortable with the slower pace of public speaking and with the sound of silence. Practice it every day. Practice it with the ingredient list on your cereal box. Practice it with the front-page story on the newspaper. Practice it with your zany aunt’s latest Facebook rant, and you’ll quickly learn why speechwriters prefer short sentences.

  • Bring the drama.

    Next time you give a presentation, don’t launch right into it. Instead, take at least one (but preferably three) long, deep breaths while you look at your audience. This gives you a chance to collect your thoughts and get off to a powerful start, and it creates a feeling of suspense. Your audience will be leaning in to hear what you have to say.

That’s it! Breathing is easy, but with practice you can do it better. Think about it: you breathe about 20,000 times a day. You need to do it anyway, so learn to make it your secret weapon.

A public speaking coach can give you the strategies, feedback and accountability to become a better speaker than you ever dreamed you could be. Click here to book a free consultation and find out how I can help you!

Image credit: Victor Garcia on

Alex KeenanComment