There is nothing more important than breathing, most obviously in daily life, but especially for every major event you will face. Not only is it essential to boost confidence and delivery on the TED stage, but it's also necessary when you speak up in a meeting, connect with a client, or even ask for a promotion.
In fact, in all my experience as a speaker coach, I've found that breathing is the most critical (and least taught) tool in public speaking.
Allow me to illustrate this with an inspiring true story about a man who learned to breathe:
Gerry (fake name, real client) had never spoken in public.
I'll never forget the story he and his wife shared.
Thirteen years earlier, their son had died of cancer, and while in the hospital, they learned that thousands of children die annually because they can't get to their treatment facilities.
After their son passed away, Gerry and his wife set up a nonprofit to help kids get to the care they needed. Despite speaking with hundreds of patients, parents, and caregivers, in all those years, Gerry had never said a word from a podium.
He was tense, nervous, too timid to speak in front of a large group.
What transformed Gerry's presentation--what transformed his entire demeanor even--was rediscovering his breath. In the hospital he'd read his son Dr. Seuss's Oh the Places You'll Go, so we started our breath work there. With tears dripping down his cheeks, we would read, pause, and breathe. Read and breathe. Read and breathe.
Learning to control his breath unlocked something in Gerry. He found a calm and peace that revealed a voice he'd kept hidden inside his whole life.
And now? Gerry speaks all over the country, telling his son's story, and the stories of the brave kids they're helping across the nation.
That's the magic of human respiration: it's the only body system that runs on autopilot until we take control. Through biofeedback, we can actually lower our heart rate and body temperature simply by taking a deep diaphragmatic breath.
Do you know what actors from Hollywood to Broadway know that us mere mortals often don't? To control your voice, you also have to control your breath. What's more, controlling your breath also brings anxiety under control.
How do we gain such control? It's easy with a little practice, and it all begins just above the belly.
Under stress, we tighten our muscles and hold the tension we're feeling. That tension locks itself into our bodies. One of the first places tension manifests is in our breathing patterns. Anxiety makes us breathe shallow and more quickly. This results in the body perceiving itself as being under threat, so your automatic survival mechanism, the fight-or-flight response, takes over.
The physiological effects of anxiety include:
Breathing from the tops of our lungs
Less oxygen circulating in our entire system, including your prefrontal cortex
Panic attacks or hyperventilation
Holding your breath also results in a quivering voice and the loss of vocal control, pitch, and tone--not great qualities during your keynote speech.
The persistent speech anxiety that causes shallow breathing creates a vicious cycle. The less air we take in, the worse we feel, and the less effectively we speak. The less effectively we speak, the worse we feel, and the less air we take in. The only way to break the cycle is to master speech-saving breathing habits.
Try this breathing exercise:
1. Lying on the floor, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Now take a deep breath and make your chest rise; that shallow inhalation is your automatic breath.
2. Now breathe deeply again, but as you inhale make your stomach rise instead. This is breathing with your diaphragm. Try it a few more times.
Do you notice how much more powerful it feels? How much more steady are your attention and respiration? That's the power of belly breathing.
You can make it habit--you can retrain your body to breathe more efficiently--by noticing where your breath is as you go about your day, and correct accordingly. Soon it will be second nature.
When I first started acting, I was shocked at the difference diaphragmatic breathing made. It's the difference between being heard on stage and being heard back in the cheap seats.
Breathing from your gut gives your voice an unmatched force. Find that force and use it.