We have two scientists, doctors Krasnow and Yackle, from Stanford at the time the study was done, to thank for recently published work on breathing that has shed some light on why it’s so important to breathe properly when you’re getting ready to do something stressful, like give a presentation. (The good Dr. Yackle has since gone on to UCSF.)
Working with mice, the two researchers disabled a set of neurons that were involved in shallow, sniffy sorts of breathing – the kind of breathing that you (or the mice) do when you detect something unusual or stressful in the environment. That breathing sets off the neurons which then send panicky alerts to all parts of the body, creating rapid heartbeats, fidgeting movement, and a whole host of other alarm-related activities.
Without these neurons, the mice kept a Zen-like state of detachment, because no neural alarms were set off.
The point is that if you don’t have these neurons disabled, then your (shallow) breathing will set off all those unpleasant symptoms and feelings – unless you deliberately slow down and deepen your breaths. Then, you don’t set off the neurons that trigger your mental arousal, you stay calm, and you’re cool as James Bond during the presentation.
It’s even more important because modern, air-conditioned air, the kind you might breathe in your air-conditioned office, the car on the way to the airport, the airport, the airplane, the car to the hotel, the hotel, and the conference room where you’re speaking – all that air – leads to less elastic vocal chords, something called vocal jitter (tiny variations in pitch) and wavering volume.
And your brain will add that jitter and wavering volume to your shallow breathing to begin to establish a strong sense that you’re panicked and liable to get more panicky by the second.
All of that panic will be transmitted to the audience as well, creating a general feeling of desperation which will be antithetical to a successful speech.
What do you do about it?
First, breathe properly. I’ve talked about breathing before, but now I’m going to raise the ante on you. I’ve described the process of taking a belly breath, or diaphragmatic breath, by expanding your stomach like the bulb of an eye dropper while breathing in (counter-intuitively), tensing your abdominals gently, and squeezing the air out slowly as if you were pushing your stomach in to look good on the beach.
OK, now I’m going to tell you to do that 100 times. Every day. Slowly. Slow enough so that you don’t get light-headed or fall over. It will take you about 10 minutes or so, and it’s the best exercise a speaker can get. It’s very calming, it will improve and strengthen your vocal apparatus, and it will prepare you for a day of speaking.
And do some belly breathing again just before the presentation.
Second, drink water all the time. Hydrate, in the modern parlance! If you’re like me, you need at least some caffeine to get you going in the morning, but the problem with coffee and tea is that the caffeine dries out your vocal chords. So an airplane ride, lots of coffee to make up for the fact that you got up too early to catch the plane, and a stay in the conference hotel is like a week in the desert for your vocal chords.
You need to compensate. You need to drink like mad. And, I’m sorry, but I don’t mean alcohol. That has the same effect as caffeine. Especially the night before your speech, lay off the booze and hydrate instead.
Third, do a set of vocal warm ups shortly before you speak. There are many variants, and if you’ve been trained properly as a singer, you no doubt have your favorites. If you don’t, get a book like Edith Skinner’s classic Speak with Distinction, which is packed with vocal exercises, and develop your own retinue of roughly 5 – 10 minutes of gentle warm ups to do just before speaking.
Your voice is your most precious asset as a speaker. Take care of it.
And let’s take care of those other important things for speakers — content and delivery of top-notch presentations — at our Powerful Public Speaking one-day workshop in Boston on October 24. Sign up now because spaces are limited!