Correct breathing, voice and speech techniques form the foundation for public speaking explains Adam Milford

Public speaking is the process and act of speaking to a group of people in a structured, deliberate manner intended to inform, influence or entertain a listening audience. It is closely allied to “presenting”, although the latter is more often associated with commercial activity. Most of the time, public speaking is to persuade the audience.

Some form of public speaking is a part of everyday working life for most senior staff, the self-employed and business owners. Job interviews, sales pitches, marketing presentations and networking events are all important business functions at which we need to present confidence, knowledge and ability. However, few people receive any real training or guidance on how to make the most of these opportunities.

Many entrepreneurs and business leaders throw themselves at such challenges through necessity. They don’t lack confidence however they do lack guidance which results in poor technique and bad habits being developed which are often difficult to correct.

As an actor, I have trained and worked primarily in theatre for the past 20 years. As an acting and public speaking coach, I have adapted many of the techniques I’ve learned to help clients control nerves, improve the quality of their voice and teach them how to work with an audience, helping them win contracts, boost their careers and become more confident public speakers.

Correct breathing, voice and speech techniques form the foundation for public speaking and are skills that should be developed by anyone wishing to succeed in this arena.

1 Correct breathing

As we enter adulthood we become lazy with our breathing and most people only use about a third of their lung capacity simply because that is all our bodies need for day-to-day life. However, this can lead to a shortness of breath, hyperventilation and the appearance of someone who is physically unfit.

Correct breathing techniques are used by actors, singers, dancers, athletes and martial artists. They are integral to the practice of yoga and meditation for a reason – correct breathing relaxes the body, focuses the mind and calms the nerves.
Relax your stomach and with your hands placed between your belly button and bottom ribs take several slow, deep breaths. You should feel your stomach move out and in again as you inhale and exhale. Place your hands on your ribs and feel your ribs expand as you inflate your lungs. Keep your shoulders relaxed, feel tall to avoid slouching. Focus on your breathing and visualise your body being rejuvenated by breath.

Breathing exercises can be done anywhere and at any time – whether you’re at your desk, in a meeting, on the train or while watching TV!

2 Voice and speech

The phrase “it’s not what they said but how they said it” highlights the difference between voice and speech. The voice communicates our thoughts and emotions through sound (pitch, pace, volume, tone) whereas speech is the shaping of the voice into words to communicate information.

It is the voice that enables us to come across as caring, stern, warm, cold, confident or anxious. When nerves get the better of us our voice fails us, often becoming thin, high pitched and uncomfortable. Vocal warm-up exercises, in partnership with correct breathing techniques, will help to develop a richer, more confident sounding voice which we are able to control, resulting in a more clearly articulated speech that is easier to listen to.

Relax the jaw and hum, pushing the sound to the front of your face so you feel the lips and sinuses vibrate. Do this on a long, slow exhale. Open the mouth and, without forcing it, turn the hum into an “Ah” sound. Smile. Experiment with vowel sounds, shaping the sound with the lips and tongue. Visualise your throat opening up and the sound flowing from you.

Release tension in the neck and shoulders to help you breathe easily. Gently circle the shoulders back and forth several times in each direction. Raise your shoulders to your ears and drop them. Slowly turn your head from side to side, tilt it left and right and rotate it to relax the muscles. Repeat the initial voice exercise and listening to your voice open up.

Imagine you have spinach in your teeth and try to remove it with your tongue. Circle it around the front of your teeth repeatedly in both directions until your jaw aches. Massage your jaw and lips

Repeat the humming exercise above and listen for any differences in the quality of the sound.

The more often you practice voice exercises the warmer and richer the tones in your voice will become, developing an awareness of how to control the voice to convey confidence and status when speaking.

Moving forward, experiment with tongue twisters to improve articulation to prevent you from becoming tongue-tied.

Round and round the ragged rock the rugged rascal ran

She sells sea shells by the sea shore

Red lorry, yellow lorry, red lorry, yellow lorry (repeat)

3 Conversation not dictation

Nobody wants to be talked at, we prefer a two-way conversation. The concept of having a conversation with an audience can be achieved, but only by having a clear understanding of the material you are presenting and what you want your audience to get out of the event.

When writing we use punctuation to separate thoughts, ideas and statements. However, when we get nervous we start to ramble, talking so fast that punctuation is discarded which results in an endless stream of speech which is difficult for our audience to follow.

Presentations will usually contain a collection of statements, questions, thoughts and stories. When rehearsing the speech, try to actually think each thought, ask each question and realise every statement just before you speak it. Practice saying them in different ways to understand what it is you are saying and then allow time for your audience to think, question and absorb each statement you make. In their minds they will respond as if it were a conversation, allowing you to continue your speech but keep them engaged.

Adam is an actor, theatre practitioner, acting coach, director and West End collaborator. He started working in theatre in 1994 and has been a professional actor since 2000. His credits include UK tours, international productions and the National Theatre ... (Read More)

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