Monday, August 22, 2011

Presentation Basics - Breathing

Breathing is life.  If you're not breathing, you're dead.  Simple fact that we're all aware of.  However, breathing is also voice.  Without breath there is no voice.  It stands to reason then that the quality of your voice and the amount of voice you have is also driven by the type and quality of breath.  Typically, when working with clients on their personal presence or formal presentation skills, we will need to work on their breathing.   For most of us, as long as we were breathing, people were happy with however we chose to make it happen.

If we want stronger, deeper, louder or more compelling voices though, we may need to relearn the way in which we breath.  Most of us breathe from the upper third of our lungs (called Tidal Breathing).  If we want to increase the depth of our voices, or we want to project them more, we need to learn to breathe from the middle third of our lungs, called diaphragmatic breathing.  To do so requires us to breathe from a different place, not to take in a different amount of air.  Professional singers, actors on stage, deep sea divers, musicians that play a wind or horn instrument all learn to breathe from the diaphragm in order to support their craft.  You can too.

To practice, start by standing up.  It is important that you stand fully upright, with the spine elongated.  If you slump you compress your diaphragm and cannot breathe from it.  Place a hand on your upper chest and one on your upper stomach area, just below the bridge of your ribs.  Take a nice, slow, deep breath in.  Watch which hand moves.  (Breathe out!)  Instead of seeing the upper hand rise and fall as you breathe (indicating that you are filling the upper third of your lungs with air), try to make the bottom hand (the one on your diaphragm) move in an out.  This will require that you target your breath more, but it will begin to train your brain and body to begin breathing from this area more often.  The more consistently you practice breathing from your diaphragm the more you begin to create the habit of breathing from it.

Breathing from the diaphragm also has a number of additional benefits.  Let's face it, most of us don't give many formal presentations and, even if we do, we tend to get very anxious and stressed about doing one.  We carry this tension in our bodies, which then influences the way we move and sound - making us appear uncomfortable.  Our presentation suffers.  I offer you two suggestions below to help you deal with some of this tension...

  1. It is not unusual for people, when they get nervous, to feel short of breath or sick to their stomachs.  This is because the nerves that control your digestion and your respiration attach to the C3 and C4 vertebrae, which are in the middle of the back of your neck.  When we get nervous and tense, we tend to tighten and bunch up these muscles (how many of your feel stress through the muscles of your neck and upper shoulders?).  As we tense these muscles up, we impact the nerves controlling our breathing and digestion.  The solution then is to relax those muscles, release the tension.  Certainly getting someone to massage them for you would work.  When at work or at other times you don't have access to someone willing to give you a neck massage, try the following exercise.  Stand comfortably and bend over, letting the head hand freely.  Really make an effort to fully relax the neck muscles.  You can test this out by taking your fingers and gently pushing on your head (while it's hanging).  If you feel resistance your haven't fully released it.  Allowing the neck to hang freely, and using the weight of the head (much heavier than you realize!) to pull and extend the vertebrae of the neck, helps relieve the tension and release the pressure on those nerves.

  2. Practice your breathing!  Take a couple of quiet moments periodically throughout the day to breathe deeply and fully.  Sit fully upright and put a hand lightly on your diaphragm to serve as a target for the muscles you want to engage.  In addition to practicing breathing from the diaphragm, concentrate on the breath you take.  Breathe through the nose only since breathing through the mouth tends to signal to your brain that you are in distress.  Not the effect we're after!  Deepen your breathing by elongating your exhalations, not your inhalations.  Your lungs will adjust naturally and automatically to replace the air you have lost through your exhalations. Therefore, you don't have to focus on your inhalations, they will take care of themselves.  Additionally, when you're nervous, trying to inhale more could result in hyperventilation.  Focusing on the exhalation is what will prove calming.  Try to extend and lengthen the number of outward counts of breath each time.  Although you could certainly start and end your day with 15-30 minutes of controlled breathing, most of my clients don't tend to find, have or make the time for this.  Instead, using this technique periodically throughout the day, for 3-5 breaths, will serve to help you maintain a greater sense of calmness, well-being  and will help keep your stress in check.

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