Effective Speaking Skills: Effect of Breath

The Effect of Breath on Voice and Speech

The voice is responsive to emotions and sometimes gets ‘blocked’, which can prevent or hinder the expression of a range of feelings.  However, it is possible to use physical exercise to help produce a more flexible voice, in the same way that people who use vocal sounds professionally take lessons, to ensure that their voices are kept in a versatile condition and ready to vocalise a range of sounds.

When under stress an individual’s breathing pattern will change.  When your muscles are tense you cannot use your lungs to their full capacity, when a person is frightened or nervous, a common symptom is tension in the neck and shoulders.  This occurs because, when under pressure, over-breathing tends to occur.  Plenty of air is inhaled, but with fast breathing there is not enough time to exhale and relax.

Good breathing is essential for two reasons:

  1. By using full lung capacity the breath will support the voice and the voice will become richer, fuller and stronger.  This will benefit individuals who have a small voice and who worry that they cannot be heard when speaking to a group of people.  Volume is controlled in the abdomen not in the throat, so breathing to full strength will allow for greater control of the voice.
  2. Breathing deeply and rhythmically has a calming and therapeutic effect as it releases tension and promotes relaxation.  Individuals who are relaxed are more balanced, receptive and confident.  It is no coincidence that several religions use rhythmic breathing techniques such as meditation, yoga and silent contemplation, and vocal release in the form of chants, mantras or hymn singing as aids to their devotions.  By easing physical tension, mental stress decreases and the mind is effectively freed to follow creative pursuits.

Breathing Exercise

  1. Stand in an easy position with your feet one pace apart, with the knees  ‘unlocked’ and not rigidly pushed back.  Keep spine straight, head balanced and face muscles relaxed.
  2. Breathe in to a slow count of three, then out to a slow count of three.
  3. Try not to raise your shoulders as you breathe.  Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.  Consciously think of your breath ‘filling down’ to the bottom of your lungs.
  4. Put the palm of your hand flat against your abdomen and feel the movement.  Push slightly against your hand as you breathe in and out.
  5. Repeat this exercise ten times.

Depending on how you feel after several days of doing this exercise, extend the count of the out-going breath from three to four, five and six gradually building up to ten before you need to take another breath.  Then count out loud on the out-going breath from one to ten. Repeat five times.

By building up your control of out-going breath, you will never sound ‘breathy’ or feel you are ‘running out of breath’ when you speak to a group or a meeting.

See our Relaxation Techniques section for more on breathing and relaxing.


Vocal Production

The following three core elements of vocal production need to be understood for anyone wishing to become an effective speaker:

  • Volume  –  to be heard.
  • Clarity  –  to be understood.
  • Variety  –  to add interest.

Volume

This is not a question of treating the voice like the volume control on the TV remote.  Some people have naturally soft voices and physically cannot bellow.  Additionally, if the voice is raised too much, tonal quality is lost.  Instead of raising the voice it should be ‘projected out‘.  Support the voice with lots of breath – the further you want to project the voice out, the more breath you need.

When talking to a group or meeting, it is important to never aim your talk to the front row or just to the people nearest you, but to consciously project what you have to say to those furthest away.  By developing a strong voice, as opposed to a loud voice, you will be seen as someone positive.

Clarity

Some people tend to speak through clenched teeth and with little movement of their lips.  It is this inability to open mouths and failure to make speech sounds with precision that is the root cause of inaudibility.  The sound is locked into the mouth and not let out.  To have good articulation it is important to unclench the jaw, open the mouth and give full benefit to each sound you make, paying particular attention to the ends of words.  This will also help your audience as a certain amount of lip-reading will be possible.

Variety

To make speech effective and interesting, certain techniques can be applied.  However, it is important not to sound false or as if you are giving a performance.  Whilst words convey meaning, how they are said reflects feelings and emotions.  Vocal variety can be achieved by variations in:

  • Pace:  This is the speed at which you talk.  If speech is too fast then the listeners will not have time to assimilate what is being said.  Nevertheless, it is a good idea to vary the pace – quickening up at times and then slowing down – this will help to maintain interest.
  • Volume:  By raising or lowering volume occasionally, you can create emphasis.  If you drop your voice to almost a whisper (as long as it is projected) for a sentence or two, it will make your audience suddenly alert, be careful not to overuse this technique.
  • Pitch – Inflection – Emphasis:  When speaking in public, try to convey the information with as much vocal energy and enthusiasm as possible.  This does not mean your voice has to swoop and dive all over the place in an uncontrolled manner.  Try to make the talk interesting and remember that when you are nervous or even excited, vocal chords tense and shorten causing the voice to get higher.  Emphasise certain words and phrases within the talk to convey their importance and help to add variety.
  • Pause:  Pauses are powerful.  They can be used for effect to highlight the preceding statement or to gain attention before an important message.  Pauses mean silence for a few seconds.  Listeners interpret meaning during pauses so have the courage to stay silent for up to five seconds – dramatic pauses like this convey authority and confidence.

Before any important speaking situation, whether it is an appointment, meeting or talk, it is beneficial to have a voice warm-up.


The voice is an instrument – no musician arrives at a concert hall and launches into Beethoven without first tuning up.  The length of time and frequency of a warm-up is up to you and will depend on how much speaking you need to do.

Find more at: http://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/effective-speaking.html#ixzz4W19EmnhG

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