Speaking in public can be a stressful experience involving nerves, racing thoughts, and self-doubt. But guess what?! There is an easy solution: Breathing exercises.
Diaphragmatic breathing can help you decrease tension in your body and energize your public speaking voice.
Use these tips to learn how to breathe deeply and feel more confident walking onto a stage or the front of the boardroom. First, start with some vocal warm-ups:
Mastering your breath while you speak will help support your voice. This enables you to talk for longer amounts of time and project more clearly without tiring out your vocal cords.
The key is to do this ahead of time. Once nerves are in play during a presentation, you’ll have a harder time focusing on your breathing. It’s helpful to train your muscles ahead of time—that’ll make it easier for diaphragmatic breathing to kick in when you feel anxious.
Here are some breathing exercises you can use for public speaking.
#1 Imagine you’re a balloon or a vase
Here is a quick exercise you can use to breathe more deeply. Some people find it helpful to use mental images that help them envision their bodies.
Two of the most common images are a balloon and a vase.
Imagine that your stomach is a balloon that you inhale to fill up. The balloon has to expand slowly and steadily. Imagine you are doing this as you slowly inhale.
Besides the balloon, you can also use a vase. Imagine that your stomach is a vase and the air you inhale is water. You need to breathe deeply enough to fill the entire vase with water.
By the nature of gravity, the water will go to the bottom of the vase first. Similarly, imagine yourself filling your lungs with air starting from the very bottom.
#2 Use the box breathing technique
The Navy SEALs use the box breathing technique to stay calm and centered—despite the high-intensity requirements of their job!
Imagine that your breathing pattern is following the outline of a box. Take four seconds to inhale, hold it for four seconds, slowly exhale for a count of four, and then wait for another count of four before beginning it all over again.
Continue doing this. Even 5-10 box breaths can help you calm your nerves and improve your mental clarity.
For more tips on improving mental clarity, check out our article, 9 Effective Ways to Clear Your Mind (With Science!).
#3 Try alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing, also sometimes called Nadi Shodhana, is a breathing technique within yoga. It is one way to access slow breathing, which researchers define as 4-10 breaths per minute. Standard breathing ranges from 10-20 breaths per minute.
Slow breathing has been found to, over time, increase the capacity of people’s lungs.
Here are the steps for alternate nostril breathing you can try:
- Find somewhere comfortable to sit. Check that your back is straight, your shoulders pulled back and relaxed. Set your left hand in your lap.
- Take your right hand and place your pointer and middle finger on your forehead at the inside corners of your eyebrows. Set your thumb and ring finger gently on either side of your nose.
- Gently plug your right nostril with your thumb as you exhale through your left nostril.
- Unplug your right nostril as you slowly inhale.
- Pause for a little while and then slowly exhale through your right nostril.
- Pause once again as you take your thumb off your right nostril and use your ring finger to plug your left nostril.
- Use your left nostril to inhale slowly, pause, and then exhale.
- Repeat this several times.
If that sounds a little confusing, check out this video to help you get started:
Because you are only breathing through one nostril at a time, you will naturally breathe slower. This helps combat anxiety as it signals to the nervous system that you are safe. It also, over time, can increase your lung capacity.
Larger lung capacity = more steam to run on at your next presentation!
#4 Use Diaphragmatic Breaths
When you take deep, diaphragmatic breaths, your stomach, and lower rib cage will naturally expand.
What is the Diaphragm? The diaphragm is a muscle at the base of your rib cage and the most important muscle in the respiratory system. As you inhale, it contracts and flattens, pulling air into your lungs. As you exhale, it relaxes, returning to its domelike shape.
You will often hear the phrase “breathing into your stomach” or “belly breath” used interchangeably with “diaphragmatic breathing.” This is because when you use your diaphragm for breathing, your stomach will also naturally expand.
If, on the other hand, you notice your shoulders and chest rising when you breathe in, you’re likely taking shallow breaths.
Taking deep breaths increases what some scientists refer to as tidal volume. Your lung capacity can gradually increase as you practice deep breathing.
Having good breath support helps you have a more dynamic range as you speak. It makes it easier to raise your voice for emphasis or lower it to draw people in as you talk. This can help you sound more confident and draw people in as you speak.
If you’re able, lie down on the ground. Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Inhale slowly and notice which hand rises. If the hand on your chest begins to rise, you’re taking a shallow breath. If the hand on your stomach rises—congrats, that’s a diaphragmatic breath!
You should feel the breath making your abdomen rise and fall, and your ribs will also expand. Many people feel it all the way to their back.
Here’s a video example of what it will look like:
Lying down helps your muscles relax, which can help you access these muscles easier. However, if you can’t lie down, try doing this while standing or sitting.
Pro Tip: If you’re standing, try backing up against a wall. This will help ensure that your back is straight and your neck and head are directly on top of your spine.
#5 Five minutes before your presentation
Take a few moments before heading into a presentation to center your breathing.
Poor posture can lead to less oxygen intake. Practice with proper posture by sitting on the edge of your chair with your knees at a 90-degree angle. Have your feet firmly planted on the ground. Check that your back is straight and your neck and head are aligned directly on top of your spine.
Now, take a slow breath, hold it for a moment, and slowly release it. If you notice your chest or shoulders rising, you’re probably taking shallow breaths that only reach the top of your lungs. This means you’re getting less air in your body.
To change this, place one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen. Then, slowly inhale again, reminding yourself to breathe so that the hand on your abdomen rises and falls. This may initially feel unnatural, but it means your lungs are filling with more air.
Taking deep, slow breaths like this before a presentation can help in two ways. First, it can help you warm up your muscles to breathe deeply while giving the presentation.
Second, it can help calm your nerves as deep breaths signal to the brain that you’re calm. This combats the natural fight-or-flight responses of your body toward stressful situations.
#6 Use vocal warmups to connect your breath and voice
Vocal warmups may feel unnecessary, awkward, or something reserved for professional singers. But like how athletes need to warm up before their muscles kick in, you must train your vocal muscles before performing your best.
Some of the simplest and most helpful warmups are hums. Start by humming on a single note. Pay attention to where you feel the sound resonating. You want to feel a little buzz in your lips (make sure your lips are together but not tense).
The alternate is the sound sitting in the back of your throat. If you feel this happening, imagine you’re throwing an overhand ball as you start the hum. This helps “throw” the sound forward.
Pro Tip: If you’re unsure if your hum is in the “front of your mouth,” try opening your lips. A correct hum will open to a sung note. If the sound is in the back of your throat, the sound will stay the same when you open your mouth.
As you get comfortable with that one pitch, start ascending and descending. Between runs, pay attention to your breathing. It can help to place your hands on your hips so you can feel your rib cage expand as you breathe deeply.
Try lip trills if you’re ready to level up, and make sure your voice and breath are connected. To do this, purse your lips slightly and exhale as you hum. Think of it as a kid’s sound when imitating a revving engine.
You will stop trilling if your airflow has either too much or too little pressure. Try to keep the trill going for as long as possible before taking another breath and starting back up.
Here’s a video to demonstrate what a lip trill looks like and how to use it to warm up your voice.
This can help you better understand when your breath is flowing at an even and steady pace.
If you want to try out some other voice warm-ups, check out these 5 Vocal Warm Ups Before Meetings, Speeches, and Presentations.
#7 How to breathe well while speaking
If you’re giving a presentation, you may be unable to stop and take a slow, intentional inhale every time you need to breathe. This is where the catch breath becomes a helpful tool.
A catch breath is a quick intake of air. It takes only a fraction of a second and can help you keep going with good vocal support.
Once you feel comfortable with your diaphragmatic breathing, start practicing your catch breath.
Start by imagining that you’re talking with someone and have just remembered something you forgot to tell them. Notice how you naturally take a quick, deep air intake before saying, “oh yeah,” or “by the way.”
This vocal coach calls it the “by the way” technique. You can see how she explains it in this YouTube video:
How to Take a Quick Catch Breath While Singing
Another way to practice taking a quick catch breath is by imagining you’re taking a slight sniff of a rose. As you take the quick inhale through your nose, your stomach expands to fill with air.
The key to a catch breath is ensuring your belly expands and fills with air rather than your shoulders and chest rising.
Contrast this to the sensation when you’re panting or hyperventilating. In these instances, you’re taking lots of quick, shallow breaths. The air from these won’t last as long as your deep breaths.
#8 Do a “full-out.”
It’s hard to emulate the nerves you’ll probably feel while giving a presentation. You can do various things to prepare yourself for the moment you walk to the front of the room.
Good breathing techniques help give your voice the power it needs to project and help calm your nerves. Researchers found that diaphragmatic breathing helps decrease psychological and physiological stress factors.
In cheerleading, a full-out means running the routine from beginning to end without stopping. It helps show the athletes what transitions or formations need more practice before a competition.
Similarly, speakers benefit from doing a full-out of their presentation.
Take your notes and stand in front of a mirror. Deliver your presentation, imagining a room full of people standing before you. Observe your movements and posture. These small details affect how quickly you use your oxygen and how soon you need to breathe again.
- Slouching makes it harder for you to take a good breath. It will especially hinder you from taking catch breaths.
- Big gestures and expressive speaking will cause you to take another breath more quickly.
- The pitch you speak at can also affect how quickly you use the air in your lungs.
Practice taking quick catch breaths where needed and pausing for more intentional space at other points. It’s important to speak at the volume you will give the presentation. All of these details impact your breath usage.
Pro Tip: If you want to ace your presentation, record yourself and then watch it back, giving yourself constructive criticism. Pay attention to where you use filler words like “um,” “ah,” and “like.” Try the presentation again, replacing these with a short pause and deep breath.
If you’re unsure how to start your speech, look through our Best (and Worst) Speech Openers!
Bonus #9 Learn the Art of Stage Presence
Did you know that public speaking is actually a skill? Many people struggle with stage anxiety because they feel they ‘missed the memo’ on public speaking or they are lacking because they do not have a natural stage presence. Not true!
Stage presence and public speaking are skills you need to be taught—very few people have them naturally.
Here are all the aspects of public speaking you can master.
- How to make a first impression with an audience
- How to have stage presence
- Powerful body language
- How to speak with a commanding voice
- What to do with your hands while speaking
For every speaking skill you add to your toolbox, the less speaking anxiety you will feel.
If you want help really diving into your presentation skills, be sure to sign-up for our course…
Master Your People Skills
- Create a Memorable Presence
- Communicate with Confidence
- Achieve Your Goals
Have a question about the presentation or People School? Email Science of People support.
Why are Breathing Exercises Effective?
Breathing exercises are effective as they allow your muscles to train and prepare for the next time you’re in front of an audience. When you’re nervous, your heart is racing, your palms are sweaty, and you feel flustered. But with the right practice, you’ll have your breathing training to fall back on.
It usually takes months of training for a runner to prepare for a marathon.
Breathing exercises serve a similar purpose—to prepare you. You’re getting ready for your next big presentation when you practice diaphragmatic breathing.
Breathing is an involuntary action—meaning that your body continues to breathe even if you aren’t actively thinking about it. Retraining your body to breathe into the diaphragm can take some time. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t happen immediately.
Try starting your day with a few breathing exercises to jump-start those muscles.
Here are some ways to do that:
- Before you leave the bed, rotate so you’re lying on your back and take 5 slow, deep breaths. Pay attention to your stomach and notice if it is rising.
- As your coffee is brewing, place one hand on your chest and the other on your diaphragm. Slowly inhale and exhale, paying attention to which hand is rising and falling. Remember, the goal is for the one on your diaphragm (or stomach) to rise and fall.
- During your morning commute, spend a few minutes slowly breathing in and out. Focus on feeling your rib cage expand all around. Pay attention to the way it pushes against the seat behind you.
- If you go to the gym or do an at-home workout, use your time also stretching to warm up your breathing. Expanding your lung capacity can help you have a better workout while maximizing your time!
Deeper breathing decreases tension in your body as it helps your muscles relax. It also signals to the brain that you are safe and reduces the fight or flight response triggered by stress.
While fight or flight can be valuable in high-intensity situations, it’s not typically helpful when preparing for a public speaking event. Fight or flight decreases your ability to think logically and rationally—both of which are needed for public speaking.
Breathe In, Breathe Out
Public speaking can be a stressful experience. You’re in front of a lot of people and sharing your ideas. Breathing is the foundation to both stay calm and power your voice.
Keep these things in mind as you work on improving your breathing technique:
- Take deep belly breaths: It might be easier to think of diaphragmatic breathing as taking belly breaths. This term helps remind you to expand your lower ribs and fill your “stomach” with air.
- Use warmups to connect your voice and breath. Using your breath to power your voice, instead of straining your vocal cords to gain volume, can help you speak with a more dynamic range while protecting your vocal cords. Try using hums or lip trills to warm up and recognize how your breath and voice are connected.
- Use breathing techniques to calm your mind. The more nervous you are, the more likely you are to start rambling in your presentation. Use breathing techniques like box breathing or alternate nostril breathing to calm your mind while increasing the physical capacity of your lungs.
- Try it before it’s showtime. Practice your presentation ahead of time. If possible, try to practice in the room you’ll eventually give your presentation. Try out all of the gestures and speak at full volume. This will help you gauge how your breath is holding and practice when to take full breaths and where to take catch breaths.
If you’re currently prepping for a big presentation, check out these 6 Public Speaking Apps to Try Before Your Next Presentation.