There are many things that you can do to not forget to breathe and avoid breathlessness when you speak. In the short term, it would help to speak slowly, break sentences down, include deliberate pauses, be mindful, and practice. On the other hand, in the long term, I suggest it is helpful to engage in breathing exercises and aerobic exercises.
We will first consider the reasons behind the breathing difficulty. Then we will cover what anyone can do when they’re concerned that they “forget to breathe when I speak.”
Why does it get difficult to breathe during a speech?
While there are many reasons why one might forget to breathe when one talks, anxiety is the most common reason this happens. The process is fairly straightforward:
- -> Anxiety
- -> Release of stress hormones
- -> Tension is created in the abdomen, neck, and torso
- -> Respiratory function is affected because these muscles are involved in speech production
- -> Shortness of breath
Sometimes, this process itself makes the person more anxious (e.g., thought process: “I’m not able to speak properly, I don’t know what to do”). It is therefore helpful to recognize when this happens and understand that it is normal and steps can be taken to correct it.
Do you feel shortness of breath in other scenarios as well when you’re not anxious? Consider consulting a medical professional to know more.
Is forgetting to breathe a thing?
Technically, you are not forgetting to breathe. It’s an involuntary process, which means it happens outside of our awareness and need not require intention. You would not be alive if not breathing.
However, forgetting to breathe can be a thing when anxiety causes difficulty for you to breathe properly and you then do have to intentionally take initiative to breathe.
Why do I forget to breathe when presenting?
The anxiety can result from many things, including reading off a presentation, lack of preparation, high stakes, too many questions from the audience, and aiming to be perfect.
- Reading only from the presentation: You might feel like you don’t know the content well enough to speak it. Reading off a slide also can appear very awkward if it is not practiced.
- Lack of preparedness: Similar to the point above, when you’re not prepared, you would feel more anxious about messing up. There is no alternative to good preparation and practice.
- High-stakes presentation: When the importance of the presentation is very high, such as when it’s important for your grades or is broadcasted to many people, the anxiety is higher. In contrast, low-stakes presentations are much easier and provide exposure to perform in the higher-stakes ones. This is why Toastmasters can help.
- Too many questions from the audience: Even if you’re prepared, it’s normal to not know some answers. Make sure to prepare beforehand an answer you can give if you’re not sure of the correct answer. This could be something like “I will get back on that.” and “I’m honestly not very sure about that area but I think…”
- Aiming to be perfect: If your aim is to make sure there are absolutely no mess-ups, you’re going to have a hard time. Every time you make a minor error, that the audience may not even care for, you might end up criticizing yourself and becoming increasingly anxious.
What other situations can make it difficult to breathe during a speech?
Long sentences that require speaking at length or speaking continuously while ignoring the natural pauses in a sentence (e.g., ‘,’, ‘.’, ‘;’) can make it difficult to breathe as well. We’re always engaging in respiration through our nose and/or mouth even if we’re not consciously aware of it. When we speak continuously, this process is made more difficult. Hence, breaking a sentence down and pausing when required helps.
A few other reasons that you might find it difficult to breathe include poorly ventilated rooms, extremely high or low temperatures, obesity, issues related to vocal cords, etc.
What can I do to stop forgetting to breathe when I speak?
You can speak slowly, break sentences down, include deliberate pauses, be mindful, and practice. In the long run, it is helpful to engage in breathing exercises as well as aerobic exercises.
Speaking slowly allows more space for your respiratory muscles to do their job effectively. You’d also have more time to form thoughts in your head. When speaking slowly, it also appears more natural when you take pauses to breathe because the pace doesn’t seem substantially different.
Break Sentences Down
As mentioned earlier, it helps to break down large sentences into smaller ones so you can have natural pauses. It also makes it easier for the audience to comprehend it.
Example: “High-intensity interval training, or HIIT for short, is an excellent way to work on your cardiovascular ability as well as obtain explosive strength that has many benefits for your everyday health and performance.” This is a long sentence, which can be broken down to: “High-intensity interval training, or HIIT for short, is an excellent way to work on your cardiovascular ability as well as obtain explosive strength.” *breathe* “It has many benefits for your everyday health and performance.”
Include deliberate pauses
You can also include sections where you’ll have to pause as part of the speech. E.g., asking questions to engage the audience, asking rhetorical questions for thought provocation, etc. It also helps to keep some water nearby that you can take a sip of every once in a while. You can avoid a dry throat for long speeches and also get a break from all the speaking.
If you’re anxious, you might have anxiety-filled thoughts such as “What if I mess up?” and “How do I sound?” Whenever you catch yourself in these thoughts, try to bring your focus back to the speech content and your surroundings instead.
Do not try to suppress the thoughts. Acknowledge them instead. This could look like, “I am worried about how I am sounding. That’s fine. I am going to focus on the topic and what I want to convey.”
If you’re anxious, it might come from a place of not being sure of your speech content, nonverbals, appearance, etc. The only way to be sure is to practice it. You can record yourself or do it in front of a mirror so you know what you’re looking and sounding like, and if any errors are being made. You can also show it to a third person. This will reduce a lot of self-doubt on stage because you know from before that you’re doing good.
We earlier covered how muscles tense up during speech anxiety that causes difficulting breathing. You can increase your breathing capacity over time using simple breathing exercises. Diaphragmatic breathing is a good option but there are many others as well.
Here are some breathing exercises that you can try out!
1. 4-7-8 technique: Breathe in for four seconds through your nose while allowing your abdomen to expand through the incoming air. Hold it for seven seconds. Let go through your mouth in eight seconds, exhaling any tension from all parts of the body.
2. Simple alternate: Breathe in for around four seconds, hold for as long as you’re comfortable, and let go until your abdomen is out of the air from what you initially took in. While inhaling, holding, and exhaling for a specific amount of seconds has specific tested benefits, there is no need to rigidly stick to something like that when you’re starting out.
Related: Shivering on stage? Check this article.
This includes walking, cycling, and swimming among many others, and increases your breathing capacity as well. The mechanism is simple- because these activities require more oxygen, your body works hard to supply these to your muscles. Over time, your body adapts to the higher need and can have a higher respiratory capacity.
How to Breathe While Talking?
Try doing a simple check all over your body and observe for any tensed-up muscles. Release them slowly by relaxing your body. If you can, take deep breaths and let go of any tension when you exhale. Do this until you feel calm.
We covered the reasons why we forget to breathe when we speak. I hope you have a clearer picture of what you can do and the motivation to get started.
Public speaking coaching is a great way to get some practice and elevate your confidence.