Whitman College
Rhetoric 110 Tips for Public Speaking

Proper Breathing in Public Speaking

by Katherine Axtell


In public speaking situations, delivery is as important, if not more so, than content. Many speakers practice certain aspects of delivery, including eye contact, vocal tone, and use of the hands. However, few pay attention to the most fundamental part of speaking: breathing. Neglect of this aspect of delivery often results in fast, breathless speech, the creation of strange noises during the inhaling process, and plain old discomfort on the part of the speaker. By paying attention to three components of breathing, specifically posture, initial air intake, and mouth position during repeat inhalation, speakers can easily make a positive difference in this critical aspect of delivery.

In order to speak, it is necessary to breathe. To see this for yourself, try this simple experiment. Try to inhale and speak at the same time. Can't do it? That's because the outward movement of air created by exhalation helps the vocal cords do their work. Here's another little experiment: exhale as far as you can. Let the air out of your nose and mouth, and push it out of your lungs. Now try to speak. You can produce some tone, but not very much, and not of a good quality. And it definitely doesn't feel good to speak this way. So, you can see now how important it is for a speaker to have a proper air supply, traveling in the proper direction.

It's not hard to develop correct breathing techniques. The first step in the process is to learn to use the maximum lung capacity. To allow the lungs to expand fully, a proper, upright posture is essential. Stand firmly, body directly centered over the feet. Straighten the spine by imagining that your vertebrae are balanced along a string which runs from the floor to the ceiling. Alternatively, imagine that a string, connected to the top of your head, is pulling you upward, forcing you to straighten. The next step in increasing lung capacity is to "open the chest." Straighten your shoulders by pulling back on the shoulder blades. Imagine that you're trying to make the tips of the shoulder blades touch in the middle of your back. Next, lift the ribcage. Male or female, thinking of the phrase "boobs up" helps accomplish this step. Finally, turn your attention to the muscles of the neck and throat. Your head should be in a comfortable position, neither held stiffly nor tilted up or down. A tilted head will restrict the movement of air as you breathe, and a stiff neck will just not feel good. This complete posture may feel unnatural at first, especially to those of you inclined to be couch potatoes, but with practice you will discover that it's just about the most comfortable way possible to hold the body.

Now that you've achieved the correct posture for maximum inhalation, it's time to fill those lungs. The first breath a speaker takes is by far the most important one, because it's the one that establishes the maximum lung capacity that the speaker will be able to achieve during the speech. In other words, if your first breath is a shallow one, the air won't last long. You'll have to breathe sooner and more often, and you won't be able to increase the lung capacity because you'll be more concerned about maintaining the pace of your speech than about taking extra time in there somewhere to take a deep breath. But if you start out with a good, deep breath, that air will last longer. You won't need to stop talking so often to breathe, and the tendency when you DO take a new breath will be to maintain the lung capacity you established with the first breath. So, make that first breath a good one. Keeping the body in the position I have already described, inhale slowly through the mouth. As you inhale, relax the muscles in your lower body. Let the stomach and the muscles of the lower back expand. Feel your lungs filling. Take in a good amount of air, but when you feel yourself straining against continued expansion, stop.

It's important that breathing be as inaudible as possible. No one wants to be so distracted by the breathing noises made by a speaker that they forget, or are unable, to listen to the speech. For most people, the inhalation noise is high-pitched and fast, somewhat like a hiss. I know a girl who, when she's nervous, actually squeaks when she inhales. It's awfully distracting. These hissing and squeaking problems are caused by the position of the tongue, jaw, and lips at the moment of inhalation. When the lungs are open to maximum capacity, they are drawing in a tremendous amount of air. The position of the mouth must be such that the air has room to pass through. The tongue and lips, especially, act as barriers to the air trying to enter the lungs. When the air rushing into the lungs comes in contact with the tongue, for example, a noise is made because not all the air can get past.

The solution to this problem, then, is to get the mouth parts—tongue, lips, and teeth—out of the way. The lower teeth are the ones that cause the problem, and they are attached to the lower jaw, so the way to get them out of the way is to move the lower jaw. It's helpful to think of letting the jaw drop slightly, rather than straining to open it. It might feel silly at first to let the mouth open, but as long as you are letting the movement happen naturally, you will still look OK. It's when you focus on opening the jaw that you look silly, because conscious effort here inevitably creates too much movement. Just relax the lower jaw and it will take care of itself. The other mouth parts, the tongue and lips, can be moved simultaneously. Even better, they can be moved in a way that will increase lung capacity in addition to reducing breathing noise! Here's another fun experiment. Position your mouth to say "E." Don't actually make any sound yet, just put your face in that position. Notice where your lips and tongue are. Now, go ahead and make the sound. Be sure to notice any changes that happen in the position of your tongue and lips. Now, return to the original mouth position, form an "E," and inhale. Aha! A hissing sound, right? It's not especially noticeable now, probably, but I can guarantee that when you're nervous and inhaling improperly and often, that little hissing noise will grow. And that noise will be increased by a microphone system (if you're using one). Now, go back to the beginning of this section and repeat these little experiments, replacing the sound "E" with the sound "OH." You will find that, by forcing the body to make this second sound, the problems with lips and teeth and tongue will all be resolved. This is because the syllable "OH" automatically relaxes the jaw, moving the teeth out of the path of the incoming air. It rounds the lips, covering the hard surface of the teeth that is a major factor in hiss production. And finally, the "OH" sound puts the tongue lower in the mouth so that it's not obstructing the intake of air. So, by thinking of the syllable "OH" while breathing, you will not only reduce the annoying noises that are caused by the frequent mouth position "E," but you will also be able to breathe more deeply more quickly because the obstructions of mouth parts have been removed.

Well. You thought you knew how to breathe, didn't you? You weren't necessarily wrong. Since you're alive to read this, you obviously have mastered breathing skills to some degree. But the breathing techniques required in public speaking do differ from those required to simply keep the body going. When you're in a stressful speaking situation, the most important thing you can do for yourself is to breathe correctly. Start with good posture, take in enough air at the beginning of your speech, and when you replenish that supply later, be sure to inhale while thinking of the relaxed syllable "OH." If you follow this advice, you will automatically set a better pace for your speech, and increase your physical comfort during the time you're in front of the audience. Your lungs and your audience will both thank you for learning to breathe correctly in a public speaking situation.

Return to the Whitman College Rhetoric and Public Address Web Page

Questions or Comments? Send mail to Jim Hanson at hansonjb@whitman.edu.