The applause fades away and you're standing at the podium looking into a sea of faces. You've got this. You glance one last time at your notes, fill your air with lungs and begin speaking. Your voice is strong and clear and you can feel the crowd listening intently to what you're saying. About a minute in you notice your mind is wandering, you see someone shift in their seat, you get distracted and look back at the notes you were certain you wouldn't need. By the time you get to the end you are tongue tied, your palms are sweating, your voice is wavering and all you can think of is how wonderful it will feel to get the hell off this podium and back into your seat.
So what went wrong?
People always say that starting is the hardest part, the more you do the easier it gets, you'll “hit your stride” or “get into the swing of things”. So how did everything go downhill?
You forgot to breathe. Obviously you were taking in oxygen, you didn't faint or fall over. But remember that lovely big breath you started off with? You didn't get another one of those.
“But I can't take a deep breath while I'm speaking!” I hear you protest. “That will take way too long! No-one wants to sit there and watch me breathe. I'll lose my audience.” The truth is exactly the opposite.
Firstly, the time it takes to take a top-up breath is almost exactly the same as the time it takes to breathe in fully. You don't need to suck it in slowly, just let the air fill your lungs. Remember that first lovely breath you started with? Yes, more of that.
Secondly, the audience prefers it if you pause every now and again. Instead of choreographing in your pauses and having yet another thing you need to remember, why not just use the natural pause of your breath? The beauty of this is that you naturally want to breath at the end of a thought, which means it will always make grammatical sense. It also means that the pause will be perfectly positioned for the audience to absorb whatever nugget of information you have just imparted to them. You may know this information inside out, your audience is hearing it for the first time. If you race through your presentation their ears will struggle to keep up and they will miss half of what you're saying.
There is a big difference between a natural and unnatural pause. We fear the pause because we don't want to be standing up there doing nothing. We don't want to forget (or appear to have forgotten) what we are saying. We don't want to appear manipulative. We don't want to be boring. So don't manufacture your pauses, just allow them to happen.
Remember: the more time you give yourself to breathe between each thought, the more relaxed you will be. The more relaxed you are, the less likely you will be to forget what you are saying and the more likely you are to remember why you enjoy your topic to begin with. The more confident, relaxed and engaged you are, the more receptive, relaxed and engaged your audience will be.
As Shirley Manson would say: the trick is to keep breathing.
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Danielle Benzon coaches entrepreneurs and performing artists in voice, acting and audition technique. She is also certified to teach the Meisner Approach through the True Acting Institute. Danielle is based in Vancouver, Canada.