How to use your breath to make your voice more engaging when presenting or public speaking
By Andrew P Bennett, Toastmasters International
The speakers whom audiences find easy to listen to are those with an engaging and dynamic voices. Often people get into a habitual way of speaking that can lack clarity or which becomes monotonous. When this happens it is well worth spending a little time to energise your speaking voice. The pay off will be that your business audience (whether for a formal speech or in a meeting) will listen more attentively and hear the message that you have to share.
Breathing is key to achieving a dynamic speaking voice that is attractive and easy to listen to. There is plenty that you can do to improve vocal dynamism so let me share some tips and exercises.
If you have physical issues such as a back or neck problem, tackle the exercises in the way that is safe and suits your situation. The goal is to develop healthy habits over a period so take the time you need.
Improving your posture
Whether we are standing or seated, we need to create the best conditions to take a breath, and that means a well-aligned, flexible posture.
So how do you stand? Your feet should be no more than shoulder width apart, firmly feeling the ground beneath your feet. Align your posture so you can imagine a line proceeding up your legs, continuing up your spine. Your shoulders are back and relaxed, hands and arms comfortably by your sides in case you need them for gestures. You can imagine your head crowning your body.
Adapting your breathing
To start, gently breathe out. We do this as we all have residual air in our lungs and taking even more air in on top can make us feel tense.
Maintaining your well-aligned flexible posture place your thumb under your lowest rib at the side of your rib cage, shoulders will still be back and relaxed. Slowly and gently take a deep breath through your nose. You will feel your rib cage expand slightly. Then breathe out calmly.
This type of breathing is the complete opposite of the high in the chest, shallow breath that you’ll notice many people using in everyday life.
In a spoken presentation you will breathe through your mouth or nose as required. The benefit of working on taking the breath through the nose, when you are able, is that it warms the air as it passes through your body and there is less chance of feeling as though your voice is getting dry or hoarse.
Nonetheless, it is good for speakers and those who use their voices a great deal in their work to have easy access to drinking water because your vocal folds (or vocal cords as they used to be called) only work well when you are hydrated. Your voice needs humidity.
Increasing your breath span
Having learned to find the sensation of this ‘low rib’ breath, which is anchored deep in your body, rather than high in your chest, you could practice your breath span. It’s recommended to only do so for 1 or 2 minutes at a time to avoid feeling lightheaded.
Take a low breath, then in your mind count to 5 slowly breathing out gradually: 1 2 3 4 5!
Rest for a moment, then take your ‘low rib’ breath and breathe out counting slowly in your mind to 6 this time.
You can continue all the way up to 10 or eventually beyond. But remember only 1 or 2 minutes of this type of exercise at a time before taking a pause.
If you continue this exercise over a period of days your body will accustom itself to a more settled, longer span of breathing out. You need this gentle, flowing span of breath to sustain a fine quality in your voice when speaking.
A bonus is that if you are feeling nervous before a speaking presentation of any kind, be it a formal speech or an online call with clients, you will only need to focus on your breathing like this to remind your body of the healthy breathing reflex you have established through the exercise. As a result you will feel more relaxed, and you’ll appear poised and professional.
Connecting your breath and words
Now that you have established a good posture and breath it is time to transform that breath into words and expression. You can extend your breath span so that even longer sentences can be delivered comfortably without a feeling of running out of breath.
Here is a warmup routine using your settled, flowing breath.
Firstly, set up your good posture, take a low breath and hum a tune. Then use a word rhyme or some tongue twisters (there are plenty to be found online). Here is an example. Allow the pitch of your voice to rise or fall naturally with the meaning of the words.
I must call at Dawley Hall
Where my friend Paul who is not tall
Has had a fall down from a wall.
The last element of a warmup before a speaking presentation is to try out loud the first few lines of your speech once or twice. By doing this you ‘break the ice’ for yourself and when you arrive in your speaking challenge, be on stage or online, your posture is great, your breathing settled, and you are in a state of flow, prepared and ready to share your ideas with your audience.
Getting your message heard
Remember that in an engaging speaking presentation your breathing is regulated by the meaning and intention of your words. When you take the breath in, it is with the thought and intention of what you are going to say. Your breathing and any pauses you may make are part of expressing your meaning as you speak.
Your breath gives you a secure foundation for speaking to audiences whether large or small. Having this in place means that the important message you are sharing will be heard and remembered.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew P Bennett is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org