Avoid Slouching While Delivering a Public Speech
He’s no slouch is a compliment. You shouldn’t be slouching, but often the slouch isn’t a physical problem, it’s a mental one. The anxiety of the fight, flight, or freeze response is at it again. Many slouchers are trying to protect themselves, so they start to curl into a ball.
When your spine collapses, your lungs can’t fill properly with air. That’s going to travel to your neck, and then your jaw. You’ll end up looking like Shaggy on Scooby-Doo. The dreaded slouch is one of the worst postures in speaking, but luckily, it’s one of the easiest to remedy.
What happens when you breathe as a sloucher
Remember when you were a baby? No? Okay, think back and remember the last time you saw a baby. Can you visualize how they breathe? Babies do this ingenious thing when they breathe: They follow their instinct. When babies breathe, they have very little tension in their abdominal and back muscles, so they can breathe in and out easily and take deep, uninterrupted breaths. Sometime during the stage between baby and now, we adults have learned a lot of great things and nasty things. One of those things is the horrible habit of shallow breathing, as if from the upper chest.
There are a few reasons for this adult style of breathing, but the big one is stress, which, not surprisingly, babies don’t have a lot of. Stress causes the muscles to contract tightly around your abdomen, making you take quick, shallow breaths. Now, guess what happens when you slouch? The problem gets much worse. We’ll do something about that in the next exercise.
Exercise: Bow to the slouch
This exercise is meant to prove to you that slouching is a breath killer. Slouching has its time and its place (for example, on the couch during a ball game), but that time and place is not during a speech or while preparing for it.
But right now you are going to slouch. Ready? One, two, three, slouch. Curve your back. Let your neck scrunch up, like it does when you’re binge-watching your favorite show. Now, try to take a deep breath. What? You can’t?
Now flip back a few pages and redo the alignment exercise. How do you feel now? Can you feel a huge difference in how you breathe? How your body has positioned itself?
We slouch is because it’s often the most comfortable position we can find. It’s often the path of least resistance. It’s a way for all our muscles to become dead weight on top of each other. Aligning yourself for good posture goes against all of that.
It will take time and it will be uncomfortable for a while until you wean yourself off the slouch. But once it becomes natural, it begins to feel great.
Exercise: Find your breath
Here’s an exercise to prove something to you. Let’s see “where” you breathe from.
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and plant those feet like you have roots growing under them, through the foundation of the building your standing in, all the way down into the dirt, and there’s a big tree growing out of the crown of your head into the sky. Breathe a few times. Now, put one hand on your upper chest and another on your lower abdomen and breathe again.
Where do you feel the most movement? If it’s in that upper chest, try again, this time trying to fill up your lungs with all that air. The belly moves because the diaphragm is expanding fully and the abdominal muscles are released enough to respond fully to this expansion. Take a few more long breaths, in and out, and then pause. Feel where your body is when you take those breaths. That’s how you should be positioned when you’re performing.
Why feeling bad ends up sounding bad
We don’t yet have the ability to separate our bodies from our voices, even though it may seem that way for some narrators. So we’re stuck with having our voices be conduits for any maladies our bodies seem to have on that given day — or conduits for something more chronic, like stress. If your body is tight because you’re anxious due to an upcoming speech, your voice will reflect that. You’re stressed and think you can fake it? That’s a tough one, man. The only way to get rid of that sound is to dig it up from its roots.
Your voice will betray you. That quiver you feel in your gut on the day of the performance will be heard. That’s why I’m focusing so much on getting you to release your tension with these exercises.
Here are some common vocal symptoms of an anxious presenter and suggestions for what you can do about them:
- Quiet speaking into a microphone: This idea that you must use a microphone to be heard is endemic and in many cases it’s just wrong. Let’s go ahead and say it: You probably don’t need a microphone. But, you protest, what if I’m about to speak at a conference for five thousand people? Well, then you’re going to need a microphone. But generally, for a small crowd size, using a microphone is a crutch and often doesn’t end well. When you speak quietly, it’s often because your muscles are tense and you can’t project your voice.
Why shouldn’t you use this technology that’s made specifically for the projection of the human voice? One reason is that you probably won’t use a microphone when you practice your speech. So, you’ll practice the speech and get it perfect with a great projected voice, and then get there and see a microphone in your face and have to suddenly figure out a whole new way to do it. Have you ever heard your voice coming out of speakers? If you haven’t, it’s best not to try it out during a speech. It’s horrifying. Your voice doesn’t sound like you. Totally weird. So what you’ll do is compensate and speak quieter than you should, and because of that you could potentially lose some power.
- Speed speaking: It’s amazing how fast people can speak when they’re just trying to get through something. Logically, what’s the best way to get through a very anxiety-ridden speech? To do it as fast as you can, of course. But that’s not going to help you in the long run. It’s one of the easiest things the audience will pick out about your speech. And it’s one of the biggest problems I see in new speakers. Luckily, there’s a cure for it: Realize it’s going to happen, and slow down.
- Shaky voice: Have you ever heard speakers who sound like they’re about to cry the whole time? Sometimes that’s for effect. Sometimes they are going to cry, and it’s so completely powerful that the audience cries too. But sometimes you can tell from the beginning that it’s not the type of subject matter to get teary-eyed about. A business plan might be beautifully executed, but the board of directors doesn’t expect you to cry about it. Having a shaky voice can get awkward.
The reason for shaky voice is simple: no breath support. If you’ve ever played an instrument like a trumpet or saxophone, what happens when you don’t blow enough air into the horn? A poor sound. The same idea applies to our vocal folds if there’s not enough air going through. The vocal folds don’t approximate (come together) fully and won’t vibrate with ease and efficiency.
The answer: Breathe deep, as if from down from your lower abdomen, not from up in your chest. Take long breaths in, and then out again. Keep your shoulders down and your chest up and out on the inhale. Inhale for a count of four, then exhale on a whispered “ah.” Allow the sound to flow freely out of your body. Repeat a few times and then replace the whisper with a spoken “ah.” Eventually graduate to a sentence in your presentation.
- Voice cracking: Assuming you’re not 12 years old, your cracking voice is due to something other than hormones. So, how come you become a preteen throwback every time you go up to speak? The same reason some people get shaky voice. It doesn’t happen with everyone. It depends on how deep or high your voice is and the control you have in your voice already. But either way, the cure is proper breathing. Slow down those breaths and bring them in as if from deep in your abdomen. Try to release your abdominal muscles after every sentence. And take a breath after every sentence. This will allow you to fully catch up and also give the audience time to process what they just heard.
- Dry throat/loss of voice: This is a physiological response to stress that causes muscles in your body to tighten, and that goes for your throat, vocal folds, and chest as well. This is common enough, as are the remedies, such as hot water with lemon and honey. But what if that doesn’t do the trick? If not, it may be that the fight, flight, or freeze response has been activated, and moisture is being diverted elsewhere. So, if you’re full to the brim with water and your mouth is still dry as a bone, keep reading for ideas on combatting this sometimes troublesome gift of evolution.
- Clearing the throat/coughing: Not a cougher until you’re on stage? That seems mighty suspicious, doesn’t it? When you’re stressed, you often breathe quickly and shallowly from your upper chest, which can cause your throat to dry. It can also be just a nervous habit.
- Yawning when you’re not tired: Do you constantly yawn before you give that presentation? Physiological responses to threat include increased heart rate and tightening of the muscles. When this occurs, our bodies heat up. Yawning is an unconscious way of cooling your brain down.
- Trouble putting thoughts into words: Oh, things may be all fine and dandy when you’re just remembering what you wrote. But what if there’s an unexpected question period? And you’ve lost the ability to speak your mother tongue? Breathe deep! And keep reading because the next section discusses how to fight the fight, flight, or freeze response.