“Breathe in the right place.”
“Breathe where it makes sense.”
“Breathe only at the punctuation.”
These precious gems of grade school wisdom are huge hidden traps for anyone learning to breathe well, as a speaker.
Your voice is a wind instrument. It requires generous amounts of breath to work optimally. If there’s inadequate breath in the system, everything suffers, and I mean everything. If there’s no breath to flow the sound out of your body, your only choice is to start squeezing sound from your body. You don’t feel good, you don’t sound good and you have no impact on your listeners.
The only “right” time to breathe is when you need to breathe. I don’t care whether you’re at the end of a sentence, the end of a phrase, or even in the middle of a phrase. The instant you feel that “I need a breath” feeling, you pause, allow a new breath into your body, and then resume speaking. Your need to breathe always takes precedence over the demands of the text.
That’s the difficult part for a beginner: letting go of those ingrained rules long enough to explore and master the universal principles governing voice and speech. When you’re too busy obeying the rules and “doing it right,” you can’t give yourself room to experiment and learn something truly new.
If you give yourself time and space to master the technique (connecting deep breath to sound), the application (speaking and phrasing) will emerge naturally, effortlessly and authentically.
So, long before you worry about whether you’re breathing in the right place, you should learn to
- breathe deeply
- release breath easily
- experience sound as vibrating breath
- release sound easily and generously
- feel words and phrases as sound vibration
- honor the rhythm of breathing and speaking
When those skills feel natural, you can begin to explore the connection between breathing, speaking and the demands of the text. But you’ll come at it with radically different priorities, and you’ll find there’s a lot more flexibility in that relationship than most people realize.
A rule says, “You must do it this way.” A principle says, “This works… and has through all remembered time.” The difference is crucial… Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form. —Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting
That’s not just true for writing, it’s true for breathing and speaking, too.
Back away from the need to produce the “right” result. Practice is not performing. Learning is not about getting it right. Spend time experimenting and cultivating crucial skills. When you command your own breath, you control your own process. You perform the task of speaking and presenting with a sense of confidence and ease. You’re in charge.
I’m starting to realize there’s a pattern to the majority of questions people ask about public speaking and presentation. We’re looking for simple solutions to complicated issues.
That’s a problem. Communication is complex. After all, it’s about human interaction. And we all have enough experience to know that anything related to humans takes complication to a whole new level!
But humans also prefer certainty and simplicity. We don’t like things to be complex and iffy. So we constantly come up with rules, manuals and prescriptions to guide us through the chaos. We look for for tips and tricks that are guaranteed to work in every situation.
But rules never cover every possibility. So we make more. Pretty soon, the rules just add to the confusion and complexity.
Formulism is defined as a strict adherence to prescribed forms. It shows up in art, religion, ethics—even in math. And maybe it’s okay, even necessary, for beginners. The trouble is, prescription creates rigidity. We get up tight trying to remember and obey all the rules. We become disconnected, focused on doing it right, rather than being present to what’s actually happening. In this respect, formulism stifles peak performance rather than promoting it.
Can you see how this relates to presentation and public speaking?
The antidote is Freedom. We must accept that communication is complex and the outcomes uncertain. It’s not for dabblers and slackers. We must work to develop concrete skills rather than manufacturing end results. Instead of making up rules for eye contact, we should be cultivating our ability to be engaged, open and connected to our listeners.
Bringing crucial skills to the interaction, trusting we have what it takes and allowing ourselves to be aware and present, we can apply our skills in unique ways that are highly relevant to the situation. That’s true expertise.
When we commit to the way of freedom, in communication, we discover a sense of confidence and serenity. We’re not trying to be perfect, but effective. We become present for our listeners, projecting a sense of, “I get you.” We bring enhanced creativity and spontaneity to the situation. And we communicate with greater relevance and ultimately more impact.
I was in the middle of a training session the other day, introducing an exercise I’ve been through hundreds—maybe thousands of times. Sometimes in those moments, I must confess, there’s a part of me that whispers, “Oh my God, gimme a frying pan. I wanna smack myself on the head, right now.” It’s so tempting to shift into AutoPilot and go through the motions.
Of course, the professional side of me whispers back, “Get a grip! This isn’t about you. This is about your client. It’s completely new for them. And besides, they’re paying for your undivided attention.” Oh, right…
You know what I do in those moments? I focus on the details. I raise the bar on my own performance. As I’m speaking, I ask myself, “Is every vowel sound vibrating fully? Is every consonant sound articulated cleanly? Is every word spoken with openness and connection? Am I practicing whatever technique I’m preaching at this very moment?”
Then something interesting happens. I get present. I get out of my head and into the room. I’m truly with my client again, fully available. Not because of the self-talk. Certainly not because of my discipline. Just because I focused on the details. Paying attention to details heightens my awareness, sharpens my focus and restores my capacity to be attentive to the person in front of me.
I realize I’m essentially talking about my own experience of mindfulness in the context of my work. Mark Williams (The Mindful Way Through Depression) writes that “slowing things down and deliberately paying attention to each aspect of our sensory experience can reveal things that we may have never noticed before.” That’s important for anyone who wants to experience life more fully. It’s even more important for those of us who aspire to any level of excellence and expertise in our work.
Several days ago, I had the privilege of viewing, Between the Folds, a documentary about the art of origami. If you thought origami was about peace cranes and paper frogs, think again. The state of the art, today, is mind boggling! The level of technical complexity and depth of soul in the work must be seen to be believed.
Paul Jackson, a well-known origami artist working in Israel, observed, “The process of making is the point of it. The object looks good if the process felt good. This needs to be a kind of ballet.”
When he said that, I thought, “Oh, that’s so true of public speaking.” When we approach presentation as content and delivery, words that need to be spoken to listeners, delivery techniques that have to be flawless, it never feels good. So the speech doesn’t look good, sound good or engage listeners.
Great speakers love the process of communicating. They’re working from their center, flowing with their passion, living what they’re saying. It’s a feel-good experience. Then the magic happens. We take their experience and turn it into our experience. We feel what they’re feeling. From a public speaking standpoint, they might make every mistake in the book, and we won’t care. Because they’ve gone beyond words and presentation techniques. They’ve started a conversation, formed a relationship and enabled us to feel something new.
Are you wasting your practice time? Everyone knows practice is a critical component of skill-building and behavioral change, and author Malcome Gladwell has popularized the fact that we need at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to achieve mastery in any area. But there’s a catch: it has to be smart practice. Skating around an ice rink for thousands of hours won’t make you a champion figure skater. Since, it’s hard to make time for practice, how can you be sure you’re using that precious time most effectively?
Pay attention. Mindless repetition doesn’t deliver results. In his wonderful book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge asserts that paying close attention is essential to long-term change. Learning with divided attention doesn’t lead to lasting change in your brain maps. It’s not just repetition that leads to improvement; your ability to notice what’s happening while you’re performing the task enables you to recognize obstacles and reinforce gains. Stop daydreaming, get focused, and notice what’s happening.
Be curious. Expecting immediate results puts you in the wrong frame of mind for effective practice. It’s tempting to treat an exercise like a vending machine: you do the exercise and you get a result. It’s common to hear someone say, “That exercise didn’t do much for me.” As if it’s the fault of the exercise… In reality, an exercise is more like an experiment: it’s a chance to observe and learn something, and there’s no way to predict what that might be. Get curious. Give yourself permission to explore. The discoveries you make will open doors for real change.
Be patient with yourself. Focusing on “doing it right” is a distraction and a recipe for frustration. When your attention shifts from “what am I observing” to “am I doing it right” you are no longer learning. Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “You become discouraged with your practice when your practice has been idealistic. Our practice cannot be perfect, but without being discouraged by this, we should continue it. This is the secret of practice.” Give yourself permission to fail, because failure reveals what you need to learn. It’s a guide, not proof that you can’t succeed.
Focus. Trying to practice everything will prevent you from perfecting anything. Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 1,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 1,000 times.” Focus on one thing at a time. Don’t worry about the other mistakes that may be happening. Good practice requires that you allow one thing to fall apart while you focus on another. Trust the process. Know what specific skill you’re practicing. Give it your full attention. Spend time absorbing one thing, and it will most likely be waiting for you when you revisit it.
Top performance does not stem from innate talent or genetic advantages. It comes from diligent practice of clearly, carefully defined skills. Making your practice hours count requires focus, patience, curiosity, and attentiveness. The ability to practice effectively will impact every aspect of your life, personally and professionally. It will ultimately distinguish you from your peers and put you at the top of your game.
I once attended a martial arts seminar in a large university gymnasium. Participants were positioned across the space according to rank, beginners on one side, intermediate students in the middle, and advanced students on the far side. On signal from the sensei, the entire group would execute one of twelve kata, a proscribed pattern of movements. From my vantage point (among the beginners) I viewed the entire class and observed the beginners tended to finish first. It seemed counter-intuitive. I expected the advanced students to perform with more speed, but they usually were the last to finish. I realized they were focusing on fundamentals while the beginners were busy cranking out a result. I’ve noticed the same tendency in my clients. Beginners tend to do exercises too quickly, and this is a real barrier in the learning process. Speed is the beginner’s trap.
One important element of skill building is motivation. Working at an appropriate level of difficulty, getting immediate feedback and being rewarded for progress strengthens motivation and enhances the learning process. Practicing too quickly makes it difficult. Your failure rate increases, leading to more frustration. Rushing reduces the amount of pleasure and satisfaction you experience in the activity, so you become less engaged. It also limits the amount of useful feedback you receive, so the depth of reinforcement diminishes. Speed kills motivation.
Another important component of skill building is retention. If we hope to retain well, we must learn well, and that requires observation and attention to accuracy. When you move through an exercise too quickly, the details of your experience become blurry. It’s hard to observe anything, so it doesn’t really make an impression on your brain and body. Furthermore, you become less accurate when you go too fast. You perform below your potential because you’re not giving yourself time to be precise, and you end up reinforcing a lower level of performance. Speed undermines retention.
How can you avoid the speed trap? Be curious, not demanding. Treat the activity as an experiment, rather than a test. “Getting it right” is not as important as being observant. Be willing to linger over the process and see what you discover. Curiosity counteracts speeding.
Notice detail. I once had to write a two-page paper on a piece of ancient Egyptian sculpture. I arrived at the museum, eager to finish, only to be confronted by a very dull, crudely fashioned image of a warrior. My heart sank. How was I ever going to write two pages about this boring piece of driftwood? At loss, I decided to make detailed notes on the statue’s appearance, then go home and figure out what to write. So I started at the top of his head… Two hours later, I found myself not just engrossed but inspired by this remarkable work of art. It seemed ready to come to life in front of me. The report was a breeze. My biggest challenge was writing only two pages. That was a profound lesson I’ve never forgotten. For the first time, I realized that if you really care to learn something you have to take time and look closely. Noticing detail naturally slows you down.
Pay attention to sensation. Through extensive research, Dr. Michael Merzenich demonstrated that only by paying close attention do you create lasting change to your brain maps. When you move through an action quickly, you don’t feel much, and so you don’t learn well. Conversely, by cultivating a high degree of physical awareness you tend to slow down, focus more, and learn better. What are you trying to feel? Anything. Sensations of warmth or coolness, heaviness or lightness, softness or hardness, contraction or relaxation, breathing, these are all possibilities. Beyond tactile sensations, you could also notice what you see, hear, taste and smell. The more senses you involve in the learning process, the more attentive you become, and the more effective the process becomes. Feeling discourages speeding.
It’s no secret that haste undermines your appreciation of life. The advice about smelling roses may be clichéd, but it’s still true. The troubling implication is that speeding prevents you from learning well; it keeps you from achieving important objectives. It’s an obstacle to excellence. Telling yourself to slow down rarely corrects the problem since speed tends to be rooted in habit. Giving yourself a simple task like noticing some small detail or feeling some new sensation, will engage you in a new experience. That will encourage new behaviors and ultimately generate real change. Lowering the speed limit raises your potential.