Wednesday, March 18, 2009

when the speaker needs to catch her breath

One of my readers who's on Twitter sent me a private message this week to ask about a problem she experiences when speaking:
Would you consider posting tips on catching your breath during a talk? An adrenaline rush can leave me out of breath w/no way to recover...It's vexing, because it's not about being nervous, but it makes a speaker sound nervous. Have noticed in me + other women.
Since we only have 140 characters per message on Twitter, I asked her a few questions about what else is happening when that situation occurs. She wrote:
Right after I start a talk, I get a little rush that leaves me out of breath, heart beating fast. It makes me sound breathy + nervous...The irony is, I no longer get nervous *before* a talk. And I don't otherwise feel nervous, except needing to take a deep breath...But I fear a deep breath would sound even more nervous! No othr issues per se, tho the breathiness may make me speak faster. Does that help?
It does--and there may be many reasons for the sudden out-of-breath feeling, especially at the start of a speech.

That's because the most stressful time for most speakers happens right at the start. It's when the audience's attention is at its highest -- so much so that your job after the opening will be to hang on to audience attention, since it can't get any higher. Many speakers make their first mistakes in their opening lines, especially if they wing the opening. But more than that, it's the time when you go from relaxed to active, from ready to out there...suddenly, you're exposed, all eyes are on you and it's performance time.

This reader notes she doesn't feel nervous, and in fact, the adrenaline rush suggests it's a classic fight-or-flight response, the body's biological reaction to stress, which includes accelerated heart and breathing rates (as well as responses like blushing or turning pale, which some women I know experience when they start a speech). The tendency to speak faster often follows the racing heartbeat--you're geared up and moving forward. Trouble is, none of that helps you as the speaker. You may get more self-conscious and distracted (like fearing the deep breath you need would make you seem more nervous, or wondering whether the audience is on to your situation). Speaking faster almost always signals the audience there's something wrong--whether it's a too-tight schedule or a too-nervous speaker.

There is a short-term solution: If you need to take a breath, pause and do so, inhaling through your nose while you look out at the audience and smile. Pauses are expected, and if you use this pause well, you can catch your breath, connect with the audience and just look thoughtful.

The long-term solution? Taking control of your breathing to diminish the fight-or-flight stress response. Speakers need to control their breathing just as they control their gestures, movements, and words. Try these steps to achieve the "relaxation response" developed by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School. It's a well-established, well-tested method. As a speaker, you need to start focusing on care of the speaker, and do so long before you're called to the front of the room. So taking the time to prepare with breathing and relaxation should be as much a part of your speaker preparation as crafting your remarks, choosing an outfit or writing your bio. Just like hydration, you need to start this process ahead of time for it to have an impact when you begin to speak.

Don't expect to do this just before you speak, and do expect to practice this as a regular routine in order to get the most benefit. With practice, you should be able to revive the relaxation response in just moments--say, while stuck in traffic or in the few minutes before you start to speak. You also may find useful this Boston.com article on meditation, a similar process. Then check out all my tips on speaker preparation and the healthy speaker.