Pushing Past the Fear
Your heart starts to race. Your hands are sweaty. You are pretty sure you are going to faint. You've been asked to speak in front of a group and suddenly you can't breathe.
Whether it's a sales pitch for two or a state of the industry speech for 200 speaking in public can be terrifying. So what can we do to conquer the fear? We can prepare and we can practice but to really be ready we must first learn to breathe.
"I breathe all the time." I bet that was your first thought. But ask yourself do you really? Do you breathe well enough to control those butterflies, to calm yourself?
Problem: Not enough breath
Test your breathing. Inhale deeply and hold it. Exhale on a hiss. Time yourself as you exhale. How far did you get? 10 seconds, 20 seconds? Most of us don't take enough air to get to 30 seconds. You might think this is fine for speaking. You can just take more breaths. But more breaths means that you are now breathy or sound anxious. Wouldn't you rather be calm and centered?
Solution: Build your breath strength
These are some of the breathing exercises I use when coaching speakers.
1. Inhale/exhale -- what's the difference?
Think of your lungs like balloons -- when you take air in, your lungs will fill up.
When you exhale air your lungs will empty. Your lungs will push your stomach and everything around them when they inhale so if your stomach moves out when you inhale and in when you exhale you are doing it right.
Place your hands on your ribs and practice inhaling and exhaling.
Inhale: Stomach out
Exhale: Stomach in
2. Building Stamina
The more control you have over your breath and the more strength you have in your lungs the less you'll have to think about breathing. Exercising the breath will give you strength and stamina.
Inhale quickly through your mouth. Hold that air for half a second and exhale on a hiss. Time each exhale with a stopwatch and see if you can build up your time to at least 30 seconds. If you practice this every day you will find that it not only comes easier and gives you more air in your everyday life but that this exercise relaxes you. It should feel good.
Posture is a good habit for everything we do. In a presentation it can mean the difference between being taken seriously or not. In breathing, posture is the difference between taking a good breath and a bad one.
a) Perching on the edge of a chair with a straight back and arms resting on your knees.
b) Standing against a wall with your lower back pressed against the wall, feet in front of you.
a) Standing: back straight, shoulders level and down, arms at your sides or resting on a podium. Feet separated. Be sure to stand on both of them, your back will thank you later.
b) Sitting: Back straight, stomach straight and feet on the ground.
4. Setting the breath in your speech
Go through your speech and know where you can pause and take a good breath. You'll take a number of smaller breaths throughout but know where you can actually pause. A good rule of thumb is to pause on the commas or end-stops, like the period. Or pause between subjects or points that you are making. Once you've set your breaths into your pitch or speech, practice with them. While it's not imperative that you memorize where they go, getting into the practice of breathing where it makes sense will help you when you are under pressure.
5. Warming up
If you've given yourself enough time to practice or even if you haven't there is a difference in practicing in your office for your presentation and preparing to go onstage or into the boardroom. Practicing at home is what we did above. But right before you talk is a different game.
Before you present, take a moment to center yourself. Do that with your breath.
Give yourself enough time to prepare right before you go on. Take a moment to do a quick breathing exercise. It doesn't have to be excessive, just a couple of runs should do it. Not only will you be prepped to breathe, you'll be more relaxed.
Take a breath. Relax and take a moment to be with yourself. Center yourself and breathe again. You're ready to speak.