The crucial role of breath in communication, public speaking and on stage

The breath is the foundation of honest communication and impactful public speaking. It is the fuel for the voice, body and mind. Yet, there are still a lot of misconceptions about it. In this article, I would like to explain why it plays such an important role in interactions between people.

1. What is good breathing?

No such a thing exists.

There isn’t a definition of a “proper” breath or a “good” breathing pattern. Everything is subjective. For example, a TEDx speaker has different “breathing needs” than an actor on stage. They all need air, but they use it in a different way. There are even differences in the breathing patterns between singers of different genres – an opera singer uses the breathing muscles differently than a pop vocalist. To go even further, your breathing patterns change depending on your mood, time of the day and activity. There is no one “good” way to breathe.

However, there is a general agreement that a more efficient breath requires more action of the lower part of the torso (so-called “diaphragmatic breathing” with a movement of the abdominal muscles) than the upper part (raising of the sternum on in-breath). In general, I would say that we should be always looking for space and flexibility in the body. The ribs, abdominal muscles, the muscles of the back have to be responsive to the changes of breath. They have to act spontaneously. The more mobility and freedom in the body, the better the breath management.

And if your voice works well, forget about the breath. It means that it does its job.

2. Should you breathe through nose or mouth when speaking?

The answer is obvious. Of course through the mouth! For 3 practical reasons. It’s faster, more efficient and it’s natural. When you speak it is the most efficient way to refuel your lungs with air. It would be a horrible waste of time if we were to close the mouth and allow the air to go through the nose with every new thought in a conversation or on stage.

On the other hand, when you are not speaking, breathing through the nose has a lot of benefits. Actually, it is essential to our health and well-being. It filters, humidifies and warms the air. Breathing through your nose creates a better balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in your blood which influences every single cell in your body. In addition, nasal breathing produces small doses of nitric oxide, a gas which has strong antibacterial properties, expands the blood vessels and helps us to sleep better. The recent research on nose breathing is material for another article.

Try to breathe through the nose throughout the day, and through the mouth when using the voice.

3. Can you train the breathing muscles?

Yes, you can, but it’s a different training from the regular gym exercises. It’s more about creating new muscular patterns than making these muscles stronger. Training actors, singers and speakers requires a change in the activity of involuntary muscles. That’s why repetition is crucial in voice training. To create new habits in the body, you need to reshape the nervous system, strengthen certain neural pathways. This requires time and repeating the same exercises over and over again. Unfortunately, there are no instant results in this process.

So how can you train the breath? Start with working on your breathing capacity – it’s the easiest and safest thing you can do on your own. Begin with something as simple as lying on your back and releasing a continuous stream of air on a long fff or sss sound. You can also practice this exercise sitting or standing. Make sure you are not creating unnecessary tension in your neck, chest and abdomen. You should be able to do it for 15 seconds without a problem (that’s a clinical norm). Do a set of 10 long, controlled exhalations every day. You will see a significant change after 2-3 weeks. And everyone who has to rely on their voice more than usual should aim for 20-25 seconds.

4. How to use breath to manage stress?

Since we are talking about expanding the breathing capacity, it is a very good place to write about the relation between the nervous system and the breath. There are numerous studies on how breathing influences our cognitive abilities, can change our mood, can block or release emotions and can help to alleviate stress reactions. The simplest takeaway from the vast knowledge about the science of breath is its relation to the autonomic nervous system. Slow and controlled release of air (like on a long sss) calms the “fight, freeze or flight” reaction and brings the body to “rest and digest state”.

What’s more, your breathing patterns, not only influence your mood and nervous system but also affect your audience. When your breath is fast and shallow, they feel anxious. When you allow yourself to breathe slower and lower – they feel safer.

Try it! When you feel anxious or stressed, breathe out on a long, continuous sss a couple of times.

5. How to inspire yourself and others?

I would like to leave you with a beautiful metaphor illustrating the potential of the breath. The word INSPIRATION comes from the Latin verb “spirare” (to breathe), which is very close to the noun “spiritus” (spirit, ghost, energy). “Inspiration” means both inhaling and creation of thought in mind! So every time you breathe in, you inspire your brain with new thoughts and ideas. Explore this idea and see what it brings in communication, public speaking and on stage.

Allow yourself time and space to “be inspired” and inspire others.