Public speaking can be hard. I mean, has this ever happened to you: you are about to deliver a presentation in a meeting – or on stage, and your turn to talk is coming. You start freaking out and your mind goes blank. You end up stumbling through what you needed to say, but unfortunately, it’s nowhere near to what you were hoping to deliver.
How can you regain your confidence on the spot when speaking in meetings? The solution is incredibly simple and it will help you with all types of public speaking!
Alright, are you ready? The secret to more confidence for public speaking is… breathing!
Wait, but this isn’t earth-shattering, besides I breathe as it is already! – Yes, but how do you breathe?
As it turns out, some of us don’t breathe correctly, which is so strange to say, because it’s such an instinctive and automatic behaviour. But we often take it for granted!
Types of Breathing
In fact, you might be a victim of shallow breathing (or chest breathing) – where your chest and shoulders move when you breathe in and out – and/or paradoxical breathing – where your chest or belly is kind of out of sync and expands when you breathe in – and contracts when you breathe out. Pretty crazy, right? I actually learned about the second when I was 11 taking singing lessons in Russia, because my breathing was out of sync!
So which type of breather are you? Let’s see: the next breath you take, notice what part of your body expands and when. If it’s your shoulders or chest, write “Shallow breather” in the comments. If it is your belly, write “Deep breather” and if your breathing seems to be out of sync, write “Paradox”!
Breathing and its effects on your confidence
Now that you know what type you are, let’s talk about why breathing correctly is great for your confidence in stressful situations and how you can breathe in the correct way.
Shallow breathing is actually one of the symptoms of the fight or flight response – which is a set of behaviours that kick in when we sense danger – and it doesn’t differentiate between physical (like a tiger), or social danger (like an important meeting).
It signals to our brain that we are stressed and the body kicks in other behaviours and throws a bunch of hormones at us as a response to stress. It’s a vicious cycle and you end up always on the edge. So if you have a habit of shallow breathing, changing that habit would be the first place to start.
Add a stressful situation on top of that existing stress cycle (like an important meeting, where you need to present your ideas) and things get even worse! You feel stressed, breathe shallowly, your voice may tremble, vision get dizzy, you think of how embarrassing this is, get even more stressed, etc. etc. – a crazy downward spiral!
Diaphragmatic breathing and public speaking
If you practice diaphragmatic breathing, which is slower and deeper – you can calm yourself down and feel more confident. It sends a signal to your brain that you are safe, slows your heart rate and calms you down physically, providing more oxygen to your brain, helping your voice sound better and for you to appear more in control.
In fact, I remember this one awesome quote from one of my favourite Ted Talks by Caroline Goyder: “How do you know who the most powerful person in the room is? The person with the most confidence?”
Caroline then went on to answer that: “The most powerful person in the room has the most relaxed breathing pattern” – it’s so simple and yet it makes sense, right?
Every time I found myself in a stressful situation and I had to speak – whether in meetings or at events, I would remember that Ted Talk and focus on my breath, making sure it’s diaphragmatic and slower. I wanted to be that person, who has the slowest rhythm of breath and guess what? It worked every time!
Of course, you should also be prepared, know your stuff and maybe have a few pre-prepared answers in your back pocket if you think you might need them. And power poses prior to the event might help – but right now we’re talking about how to calm yourself down and gain confidence on the spot. When you are in that meeting already and you can’t travel back in time to do another power pose.
And even if you don’t have a bad habit of shallow breathing on a regular basis, stressful situations may trigger that fight or flight response and get you do breathe like that. Again, our amygdala, which is the part of the brain that’s responsible for this reaction, doesn’t differentiate between actual danger and public speaking. So regardless of how you normally breathe, focusing on your breath and slowing it down will help you gain your confidence back.
The importance of breathing
Breathing is very important and is used in yoga, meditation and other relaxation practices for a reason.
When you breathe correctly, it helps your body to calm down and de-stress by lowering blood pressure, reducing heart rate, relaxing muscles and increasing energy levels. It grounds us, makes us feel present and allows us to enjoy the moment much more.
And, in fact, a recent study in the Journal of Neuroscience shows a direct link between breathing and cognitive ability. So if breathing correctly may help you be smarter on your feet, it’s definitely worth looking into.
Let’s try diaphragmatic breathing
Now that you know the benefits of it, let’s practise breathing from your diaphragm!
Sit upright (or lay down if you feel like it!) and place one of your hands on your chest and the other one on your belly. Breathe in slowly and deeply, making sure that only your stomach moves out – the hand on your chest should not move. And then when breathing out only the hand on your stomach should travel – the one on your chest should keep still.
If you can’t get there straights away, don’t worry, sometimes it takes practice! We’re so accustomed to shallow breathing that it’s hard to let go of those habits. Simply continue breathing until you get there!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little trick and that you will have this newfound confidence in all of your meetings!