Practicing Your Speech
So far, we’ve looked at the two sides of the autonomic nervous system and practiced some techniques to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous systems in order to reduce anxiety when public speaking and to warm up the lungs and voice.
Building on these techniques, let’s look at how to deliver a speech from a practical perspective, so your actual words are clear and you can deliver a sentence without gasping for air (or water).
Remember when Superman froze a lake to put out a chemical fire? Okay, it’s from an old movie, but every presenter would benefit from having that kind of puff! Here, we’ll look at how you can develop and maintain breath as you speak.
Coming back to the notion of the power of a single breath, remember to start each new “paragraph” of your speech (whether written down or not) with a nice, deep abdominal breath. Remember that if all else fails and one paragraph feels like it’s falling apart, you can home in on taking that next breath; it will calm your nerves and fuel your next opening line.
I usually take a deep abdominal breath before uttering my first word and make sure I have enough “fuel,” i.e., air, to get me through a nice, strong opening sentence. If I’m feeling tight and worried that my voice will crack, I’ll gently cough. Coughing engages the abdominal muscles and clears the throat. Then, I’ll take another deep steadying breath.
Naturally, that single breath won’t last you an entire paragraph, so how do you breathe throughout your speech? When nervous, people tend to forget to breathe, or only breathe lightly with the chest. This exacerbates nerves by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system and robs us of oxygen. So, we need to be able to take deeper breaths as we speak.
Breathing While Speaking
There are two key techniques for doing this: rhythm control and planning.
Rhythm Control. There’s a rhythm and pattern to good public speaking. Renowned speakers, like John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr., use rhythm to build authority and anticipation into their speeches.
Specifically, great speakers take their time. They’re in charge and control the flow of words, including intentional pauses to let their points sink in and to build anticipation. They speak slowly, just under three words per second on average. This is important for multiple reasons: It gives you time to breathe, it keeps your diction clear, and it lets your audience comprehend more easily. Most significantly, it makes you sound more confident and sure of yourself. And when you appear more confident, gradually, you become so.
Another thing that great speakers do is persevere, even when they trip up. They make mistakes and just keep going. They know that:
• The audience will not take note of these mistakes if they themselves ignore them.
• By carrying on and staying calm, they own the speech, and the mistake has no power over them.
• By continuing regardless, they have the opportunity to finish these great speeches, which will be remembered for their message, NOT minor fumbles.
This is a wonderful lesson to take forward with you: Kennedy and King went down in history for their oratory skills. Even when they weren’t perfect, they carried on! Apply this lesson to your life now, and remember that you don’t need to be perfect to excel in speaking!
Planning your speeches. Another consideration when preparing a speech or presentation is how to plan for breathing. Remember this: Short sentences work best! They’re both punchier and easier to digest. They’re also easier to deliver and plan your breathing around.
When you’re writing your presentations and speeches, aim to keep your sentences short and build in pauses both for effect and to take breaths. You don’t need to make the breaths visible, but you also don’t need to hide them. Audiences will naturally assume that you’re pausing for effect, but you’re also benefitting from a nice, deep, calming lungful of O2!
Practice: Speaking Pace
As mentioned, the ideal speaking pace is around three words per second, but you can go a little slower than that when using pauses. Bearing this in mind, write a practice speech that will last a minute, or around 180 words long.
Build in breath breaks and keep sentences short. Next, experiment with delivering it more slowly and more quickly. Record it and notice how different it feels at different speeds.
Don’t miss the next lesson, where we’ll be considering—*gasp*—the audience!
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