Learning Objectives

Explain the importance of breath for effective vocal delivery.

Take a deep breath in and hold it while you count from one to five. Exhale and try to control the amount of air being let out as you count backwards from five to one. Did you have any air remaining? Having control of one’s breath while speaking is a critical component to speech effectiveness. The breath controls the quality of sound produced by the voice. When a speaker lacks breath control, it results in audible breathing, shallow breath, and unsupported sound that is so quiet it doesn’t project very far into the presentation space. There are three major types of breathing that speakers use during public speaking: clavicular, thoracic, and diaphragmatic. (insert anatomy picture here)

When a clavicular breather inhales, their shoulders go up and down and the sound of their voice comes out sounding breathy or shallow. It will not allow the speaker to get many words out with full voice support and is not ideal.

Animation of clavicular breathing. With each breath, the shoulders move up and down.

Clavicular breathing. Shallow breaths that don’t pull air deeply into the lungs.

The thoracic breather moves their chest up and down often taking many inhales because they run out of breath from speaking so fast and then try to inhale more air and the vicious cycle continues. This also produces a shallow breath that is audible and one in which the speaker trails off at the ends of sentences without enough breath support to get the ends of the words out.

Diagram of a human torso, showing how the diaphragm contracts with inspiration and relaxes for expiration. As the diaphragm contracts, the thoracic cavity expands and the external intercostal muscles contract. With expiration, the thoracic cavity reduces and the external intercostal muscles relax.

Anatomy of breathing, showing the thoracic cavity (the chest), which expands when one breathes in.

The last type of breathing is the diaphragmatic breath, which is the best for public speaking. The breath is inhaled using the diaphragm muscle which expands with air, slightly pushes the stomach out upon inhalation, and slowly relaxes back down during an exhale.

Animation of diaphragmatic_breathing. With each breath, the

Diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm muscle pulls air deeper into the lungs.

This is a controlled breath resulting in full sound which is supported and NOT breathy sounding or shallow. If you find yourself running out of breath when speaking in public, the good news is that the diaphragm is like any other muscle and it can be trained with practice. Try lying down on a floor on your back and put the largest book you can find on your abdomen, right around the belly button. As you inhale, the book goes up towards the ceiling. When you exhale, it pulls back down to the floor. Practice pushing the book up with an inhale on a count to ten and then controlling the exhale on a count from ten to one. You can work to extend how long you are able to inhale and exhale for, thus increasing your ability to speak with full sound. ALWAYS take a breath when you need it. The right type of breathing will not make you dizzy. When you’re comfortable with controlling the breath, try counting out loud as you exhale and stop when the voice trails off or becomes unsupported.

To Watch: Gina Razón

In this TEDx talk, singer and actor Gina Razón talks about the importance of breathing.

You can view the transcript for “Learning to Breathe Again | Gina Razón | TEDxCambridge” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

When Razón gets the whole audience to sing together (at 6:40), it’s a great example of using audience participation to make a point (and make it memorably). Part of what makes this strategy work for Razón is the way she jokes about the audience’s reluctance to sing—but still insists that they play along. And in the end, she makes her point: even this untrained chorus is able to create a remarkable harmony.