Public Speaking Exercises for the Diaphragm
Frank Sinatra was famous for his breath control. When you listen to him singing you cannot hear when he breathes. That is the art and technique of a performer. Nevertheless, as a speaker, it is more important to have something worth saying and saying it well than it is to display excellent breath control, so as we look a little at breath control and the diaphragm, I am thinking more in context of overcoming those feelings of breathlessness and panic that can overwhelm us when we are standing in front of people, rather than being able to perform like Frank Sinatra.
One of the main manifestations of nervousness is tightness in the chest, shallow breathing, and a sense that everything is rushing; so advising someone to relax, breathe deeply and slow down sounds a bit obvious!
I know that is what I need to do, but how?
One place to focus on is your diaphragm.
Partly because it is a useful place to focus and partly because as long as you are focussing on anything that is not you’re your sense of fear and panic, that has to be an improvement.
When we are nervous and want to speak, everything can feel constricted towards the top of our chest: our breath is not drawn deeply into our lungs; our voice becomes tight and only seems to function in the higher registers and we might feel like we are not grounded on the floor, but floating and out of control.
There are a number of areas we can focus on, which could include active visualisation, positive self-talk, changing focus, and strangely enough – but it is the one I come back to most often – structure!
It seems when all is considered, that more often than not the greatest cure for nerves and anxiety is simply to have the clearest idea of what you want to say and how you want to say it.
I remember an executive saying to me that he gets especially nervous when he has to speak and he does not have a clear idea about what he wants to say. He seemed slightly bemused by the problem.
I could not help asking him:
‘Why are you standing up at all if you are not clear about what you want to say?’
How many musicians or even sportspeople will say that they do not perform well when they have not practised or trained? All of them I would think.
I only know that when I have prepared well, I am less nervous.
Putting all that aside, because here we are, about to go on stage, we have prepared to the best of our ability, we know our message and we know that that message is valuable to the audience, but we are still tight, anxious, and breathing shallowly.
The diaphragm will support your voice and support your breathing, so we need to be aware of it.
This is good for quickly reconnecting with your diaphragm and is a good last-minute way of gaining control.
Stand straight with your feet consciously in connection with the floor. Picture yourself standing tall, as that already will create a sense of space in your body.
Put your fingertips on your tummy, somewhere between the belly button and groin, and make the noises of a bass drum and a high hat (‘bochgh’ - ‘tschee’) – that will make a connection from below your diaphragm!
Do that a couple of times to take the focus away from the high, tight chest and to bring it down lower to where the support for your voice comes from.
It might be worth doing this alone in the washroom to avoid strange looks, but after a couple of times, you should be able to do it quietly, just to establish that physical and visual connection.
This is not last minute, but a simple exercise that you can do alongside any other yoga, pilates, or relaxation exercises.
Lie on your back (maybe with knees bent)
One hand on the chest and one on the abdomen.
And breath – concentrating on the abdomen rising and falling and keeping the chest still
This focuses the attention lower down, rather than in the chest where the tightness can gather.
A couple of minutes regularly.
Count while breathing
It does not matter what number you choose for breathing in, four or seven, as long as the breathing out is longer. That way you will consciously create that moment of pause when you are fully exhaled before allowing the air back into your lungs.
The poet TS Eliot talked of
Between two waves of the sea’
That moment of calm before the next wave rises.
In for four, hold for four, out for four, and hold for four….
Similar to counting while breathing, only allow a sigh or note to be produced as you breathe out.
Feel the sound coming from your diaphragm; relaxed and releasing tension.
If not feeling energetic, you can do this standing or sitting in a chair
Sigh and move
Combine the sigh with a stretch, so that you can feel the breathing as if the stretch is producing the sound.
Also good for relaxing the jaw, another seat of tension, but again if you imagine the sound coming from deep down, that will help with the diaphragm connection.
While breathing out produce an even note that starts low, rises to the top, and comes back down again. Breathe in, from deep down, keeping the chest still, and repeat.
Not specifically related to the diaphragm, but will also help with breath control and clear articulation.
My personal favourite is to recite Italia pasta types (with a resonant Italian intonation); Rigatoni, Macaroni, Spaghetti!
Either choose a long sentence and try to say it out loud in one breath, focusing on staying relaxed to the end, or simply count slowly for as long as you can comfortably. Like a hundred-meter runner, the style of delivery needs to stay relaxed and efficient throughout.
Most importantly: make that connection with the diaphragm. Imagine it as the centre where the support comes from; create that sense of space between the diaphragm and your mouth and feel that strength passing unhindered through your chest and coming out as controlled words.
‘bochgh’ - ‘tschee’