“Many styles we hold, let the story be told,
Whether platinum or gold, we use breath control”

– Jurassic 5, “Quality Control”


Backpack rappers, the Bhagavad-gītā, the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and Harvard Business Review have reached a consensus on one thing, at the very least: the importance of breath control.

Whether your goal is to maximize the benefits of exercise, sell a million records, or reach a higher spiritual plane, the experts seem to agree that you could afford to devote a portion of your concentration to maintaining a steady, deliberate ventilation process. But, as Allison Shapira of Harvard Kennedy School writes at Harvard Business Review, that concentration can pay off in a big way for public speakers, too. The ability to harness one’s breath, as she puts it, is “one of the key elements of executive presence.”

The content of your presentation is important of course, but words aren’t the only thing coming out of your mouth when you speak. Ventilation or, less scientifically, breathing, is a part of the respiratory process that’s responsible for keeping us all alive. That respiration should not cease when you’re on stage or in front of an audience, and if you find that it does, maybe a few pointers would help you keep your wits about you. We recently collected some less obvious speaking pitfalls here, including the overly robotic, pseudo-professional tone that’s all too easy to adopt, and the veneer of overconfidence that actually gets your audience to tune out. Assuming everything is functioning optimally, though, when you’re speaking, you’re breathing, and when you’re breathing, you’re exhaling.

You are breathing, right?

As you exhale, your diaphragm pushes forcefully against your lungs, shoving out all the air it just invited in when you inhaled. How is that relevant to making a good speech? Well, think about the last time someone made a snide remark you almost didn’t hear…he did so “under his breath,” right? Naturally, public speakers should want to do the opposite.

There’s no point in making a speech if your audience is struggling to hear you, so skilled presenters will be well-acquainted with using their breathing as a vehicle for communication. Think of their words like a surfboard, catching an enormous wave of well-measured breaths and sliding up to the beach of their rapt audience.

Speakers can manage that by speaking “on the breath” which, Shapira writes, is a way of syncing up exhalation and speaking so that the two utterances neatly match up like a piece of sashimi, or a good old-fashioned sandwich. Of course, speakers can continue that effort by also using good posture to give their organs plenty of room to work, inhaling deeply and practicing that routine until it feels as natural as, well, breathing!

But you can’t just get up there and blow like the big, bad wolf. Your voice is an instrument, sure, but it needs to be finessed. Speaking is a cognitively and, more importantly for the purposes of this post, biologically complex process that involves a number of skills and structures — in other words, there are lots of things that can go wrong. The American Academy of Otolaryngology conceives of our voice as having three distinct biological parts:
Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 10.30.47 AM

Those last bits are fairly static, since you are born with them after all, but the voice box is another important tool in your speech-making tool belt. It’s not the part that ‘makes’ you talk, and it isn’t the group of organs responsible for your distinct sound, but if you need to hit the high note at karaoke night (or a team meeting), the voice box is what makes it happen.

breathing public speaking

The cartilaginous larynx (or voice box) is made up of several parts, including the vocal cords – two v-shaped muscles that vibrate to produce the sound of our voice when our breath passes around, over and through them. The vocal cords are delicate pieces of equipment, needing only subtle adjustments to produce radically different sounds. In that regard, they are not unlike the keys on a saxophone, to borrow context from a more literal instrument. That is why, although scientists concluded just last decade that certain apes are actually far more similar to humans than previously thought with respect to the makeup of their larynxes, there can still be a vast difference in ability to produce the complex sounds that coalesce into a unified language. Getting up on stage to hoot and howl (warning: monkeys loudly screaming) might stir up a few nervous laughs, but without your voice box, you wouldn’t be making much sense.

Even when our vocal cords are vibrating as expected, though, the sounds they produce can be affected by external forces; like a less dense atmosphere, say! As Scientific American explains,

“Like the vibration of a drum or a violin string, the vibration frequency of the vocal cords is independent of the type of gas that surrounds them. Whereas the velocity of the sound waves is faster in helium (and the wavelength greater), the frequency remains unchanged because it is determined by the vibrating vocal cords. Rather the timbre, or quality, of the sound changes in helium: listen closely next time and you will notice that a voice doesn’t become squeaky but instead sounds more like Donald Duck. It is the lesser density of the helium–which serves as the medium for the sound waves–flowing through the larynx that produces this differing quality in the voice.”

(For a neat, if terrifying, counterexample, check out Mythbuster Adam Savage experimenting with Sulfur Hexafluoride.)

Since it is unlikely that you will ever find yourself in the highly unfortunate position of having to make a speech on HD 124448, a type of star notable for its incredible concentration of helium, you can fairly confidently ignore any concerns about atmospheric conditions affecting the quality of your presentation. With your feet planted firmly on the ground, the law of gravity shouldn’t worry you. But Murphy’s Law might.

If the pen is mightier than the sword, a speech may be the proverbial gun in the knife fight. So many crucial announcements are made orally, and the effect a head of state can have with the right words is so powerful that even a king once acknowledged he had to improve his public speaking. Barring access to literal crown jewels, though, you may feel like there’s no way to improve your skills and throw off the yoke of sub-par respiration. Have no fear! You, too, can hire a professional to give you concrete and actionable advice as to what makes an award-winning presentation stand out from the pack. You don’t have to be the King of England to manage that.

In the meantime? Record yourself, ask a friend to stand-in for your audience and hop on the recumbent bike and get those lungs up to Navy Seal standards. Those little guys could make or break your next presentation!

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