Breathing Exercises to Prepare for a High-Stakes Presentation

Clients preparing for a high-stakes presentation often ask us to help them deal with “butterflies” in their stomachs and other symptoms of adrenaline.

Good news: the rush of adrenaline you feel does not mean you aren’t doing a good job. People generally don’t believe this until they see a video of themselves (which is why we include video in our training courses).

It is amazing that the effects of this performance anxiety—this heightened energy—are hidden from the audience. As viewers and listeners we see only a fraction of the symptoms; and once you relax into a conversation, we don’t even remember them. 

See “The riddle of intense speaker anxiety” below.

Breathing exercises to relieve anxiety

In the West, we tend to take shallow breaths and practice chest breathing, which uses limited lung capacity. When you stand to speak, your chest can tighten, and suddenly there is just a small stream of oxygen going to the brain. We’re out of air and can’t pump enough in through the chest. This is a terrible sensation.

The diaphragm is the muscle wall between the chest and the abdomen. It’s the major muscle we use in natural breathing. If you develop the habit of diaphragmatic breathing, not only when speaking and presenting but in everyday life—the benefits can be transformational.

Diaphragmatic breathing uses more lung capacity, sends more oxygen to the brain, relaxes the chest and releases your tone of voice and vocal volume. Here is a simple exercise to help you practice.

1. Find the diaphragm. Lie on the floor, on your back. Place one hand on your chest, and the other on your stomach with little finger just above the naval. Breathe slowly and notice the movement. The movement should come only from your lower hand.

2. Breathe into the diaphragm. Breathe through your nose. Your stomach should push out like a balloon. Once it is full, allow the balloon to slowly collapse. Let the air slowly out of your mouth as you continue pulling inward as far as it will go, until you have no breath left.

3. Exercise daily. Practice for a few minutes before you get out of bed in the morning and when you get into bed at night. Consider enrollment in a yoga class through a local community or fitness center. Well trained instructors will educate how the breath is used to enhance well-being with yoga practice.

Great performers like Barbra Streisand and Meryl Streep  have suffered with acute stage fright, which is more than run-of-the-mill nervousness. They have learned to overcome the affliction with the help of a professional.

But if you’re like me, you can embrace this process of risk and grow from it.  If we have nothing to risk, we become lackluster and stagnant. On the other hand, if we become the center of attention, stand tall, breathe through the nervousness and stay focused on saying something real, we lean into our greatness.

The riddle of intense speaker anxiety

Researchers have attempted to solve the riddle of how intense speaker anxiety is consistently underestimated by such a large number of people observing it. In 1959, Theodore Clevenger first observed that speaker-reported and audience-observed anxiety operate at low levels of interdependence. Since then, a number of investigators have confirmed Clevenger’s observation. Studies conducted in 1987, 1990, 1992 and 1996 have substantiated the tendency for audiences to miss anxiety states reported by speakers.

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Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur.com, CEO.com, and Fast Company.