Breath: How to breathe like you’ve got permission to speak
When we take responsibility for our breaths like that, we have a shot at fully showing up. We have a shot at creating moments of true surprise, life on the move. Rebels take deep breaths; in fact we need breath support in order to rebel. Deep breaths allow us to be audible and visible in our full glory. Deep breaths allow us to bring our whole, human selves into rooms that may not be ready for us and then teach them what they’ve been missing. That’s what changes the story.
It’s about the moment when you’re about to step onstage and you tell yourself, Breathe!, only to find that you lift your shoulders or puff out your chest and your body responds with more panic, not less. It’s about the moment you reach the mic, look out at your audience, and shortchange yourself by attempting to breathe into a body too sticky from stress or habit to accept the full breath. Or the moment you hold your breath in anticipation and then forget to let it go. It’s about everything that can go wrong and how swiftly, with a bit of help, it can go right.
To seem like a human, you have to live in your body. This fleshy situation doesn’t just carry around your head or join you for a Pilates class or get turned on at the thought of the couple from Outlander. You may have forgotten your body, or detached from it, or learned to hate it. And you may have done so for good reason: that major muscle separating the top and bottom half of your torso, the diaphragm, is responsible for a wild amount of angst. At the intersection of public-speaking fears and beauty standards, personal trauma, and making sure we come across as “likable” rather than the alternative is the damn diaphragm. It’s the shape of a dome and like all muscles, it can either hang out in resting position, rounded upward in this case, or it can contract and do something, and for this muscle, that means flatten down and let all hell break loose.
PRACTICE 1: BIG-DECISION BREATHING
Lying on your back on the floor with your knees up toward the ceiling, encourage your lower back to sink into the floor. Place one hand on your stomach, one hand on your heart. Empty out your lungs and wait for the urge to breathe. As that urge hits, feel your stomach balloon and float up—try not to force it in any way—and rather than holding at the top, ride the cycle of breath. All the way in, all the way out. And when you’re empty again, hold till you feel a new urge. Think about ocean waves, foaming up to your toes on the beach and then sliding back out to sea.
The goal here is to discover your own natural rhythm of diaphragmatic breathing or what I’ve been calling “breathing well.” When we take this kind of breath, and we allow our diaphragm to activate and flatten, it pushes down into the abdomen, temporarily rearranging those organs and creating an air-pressure imbalance like a vacuum, which the lungs then hasten to resolve by filling up with enough oxygen to balance out again. That new rush of oxygen gives our whole system a boost.
PRACTICE 2: BREATHING TO UNSTICK
Stand with your arms up. Grabbing your left wrist, bend to the right as much as you can and breathe all the way out with your mouth, like you’re blowing out a billion birthday candles. Wait for that urge to breathe, and then, let it rush in through your nose, feeling your rib cage along your left side expand. Continue to pull your wrist and try to become as elongated as you can along that left side from your ankle to your wrist. Do this one more time on that side, and then switch sides.
Now shift your focus to that impulse to take in air after you’ve emptied out. As you grab your wrists once more on each side, breathe in through your nose and pretend that you’re smelling the greatest smell in the world. Maybe your favorite flower, the cologne your crush wore in high school, a new baby, the sea. Let it affect you.
The goal with this exercise is to unstick your ribs. The image of a rib cage might evoke a birdcage, with bars that don’t move, and it’s true that the bones themselves don’t bend, but the spaces between your ribs can expand.
Vocal fry, upspeak, and the size of your voice
First of all, it helps to think of a person talking as not just opening and closing their mouth and emitting sounds but doing something to their listeners. Speech turns thought into action. If you ask a new colleague, “Do you want to grab lunch sometime?” you may never actually go for that lunch, but it doesn’t mean the offer has no value; it’s made them feel welcome, it’s made you feel that you’re the welcoming type, it’s begun a relationship. Linguists call even the most basic communication “making social moves” or performing “speech acts.” And though speech acts usually involve words, they’re not entirely about them: how you asked your colleague to lunch will define the exchange and maybe even the entire relationship moving forward.
Fun fact: when we speak in English, we tend to “front-load” our utterances. We start out with a big burst of energy as we cross the threshold from not speaking to speaking. It’s when we have the most breath at the ready and perhaps the most nerve because of all that built-up anticipation, like a runner at the starting line, raring to go. It’s natural to then expend that energy as we speak.
But if we’re uncomfortable speaking for any reason at all, the effects of front-loading become even more dramatic. As we start saying words, the racetrack bends unexpectedly and perhaps we flag: we see the room, the unreadable or hostile expressions, and we may begin to question our right to the space and time we’re trying to inhabit. We might start thinking, Maybe my idea isn’t so good after all. I should have thought it through more. I look dumb. I definitely don’t sound like that other person who spoke with all that confidence. He looked and sounded the part. What am I doing? Who do I think I am?
That big burst of energy we had at the top dissipates, and we sound less and less bold by the end of our statement, resulting in all kinds of “never mind, I take it back” energy—also known as vocal fry and upspeak (or uptalk, or, if you want to get really technical about it, a high-rise terminal pitch).
A Google search for the term “vocal fry” turns up hundreds of those think pieces aimed at women, alleging to save us from professional suicide; there are no equivalent articles for men, and often we don’t even notice when men do it. There’s an amazing video you can look up online that features an associate professor from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business discussing how that 2014 study of theirs found that vocal fry in women is correlated with the perception of a lower sense of authority. But the researcher in question, a mid-forties Tom Cruise type whose head is center screen for most of the video, speaks with vocal fry at the end of almost every one of his statements. It simply must not have occurred to a single person involved in making this vocal-fry-shaming project to even listen for it.
Upspeak is a cousin of vocal fry, and you can think of them as two manifestations of the same impulse, the impulse to shrink—to “never mind” at the end of your statements. Upspeak involves inserting a questioning pitch into a non-question, so the end of the thought swoops up, regardless of the content—even, say, telling someone what your name is? Classic caricatures of this vocal roller coaster include Alicia Silverstone in the 1995 film Clueless and Kristen Wiig in the Saturday Night Live skit “The Californians,” but really, it’s everywhere.
First of all, listen for vocal fry in yourself and your friends. Listen when your favorite movie stars go on the talk show circuit and YouTubers post new videos. You’ll start to notice that every time their voice enters that scrapy lower register it does something. One function of vocal fry’s throwaway quality is that it can be employed to help you carve out an aside or a parenthetical, which can be a valuable way of signaling high priority and low priority thoughts for the listener. (Watch Emma Stone and Jennifer Lawrence together in a loose and chatty W Magazine shoot and you’ll hear it all over. J-Law says to Emma, “You’ve watched Land Before—no wait! We’ve already [goes fried] talked about [then even more fried] Land Before Time.”) Indeed, another function of vocal fry is to reference an element of irony or humor. Relatedly, it can help us acknowledge that what we’re saying is tropey and we know it, like the aural equivalent of scare quotes.
It’s in Oprah’s “I knoooow.” And in Jennifer suggesting Emma’s real name is a great porn star name. Without missing a beat, Emma says in all-fry, “That’s…really nice of you to say.” And Jen responds, equally fried, “You’re welcome.”
When we speak with vocal fry at work around our superiors it can also serve as a trial balloon—tentatively suggesting something with a keen eye to how it’s received. It functions as an effective way to throw an idea out but then take it back just a little bit at the end for safety’s sake, in case someone in a more powerful position disagrees with us. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: we may well be signaling that we have an idea, but we’re not rigid; we’re open to others’ views. In any case, it’s a protective move, indicating we can withstand disagreement and we’re low-maintenance.
Emotion: Own your feelings—for good
“Authenticity” is one of those wily words that’s so overused, its meaning has become murky. Sure, we all want to be authentic—but how? Here’s my practical answer: It doesn’t just mean “be yourself,” whoever the heck that is anyway and however it aligns with workplace norms. It means reveal what matters to you like it matters to you. Talk about what you care about like you care about it. If you can think of anyone whose voice you love, one of those examples above or someone from your own community who speaks up effectively, I can pretty much guarantee they are doing this.
Acquire this skill and access it more consistently so you stop attempting to, as Anne Kreamer puts it, “check our human side at the door.” We must move ourselves before moving others, and we must move others to get what we want—to get what we all want. Let’s start with three solid reasons to reclaim your emotions and use them when you’re speaking in public, despite messages to the contrary. Turn to these when your mind begins to rebel and you begin—like that sweet, infuriating scientist—to talk yourself out of trying.
One, when we try to uphold the separation of emotion and work, we’re each left with a false sense that we’re the one who’s doing it wrong. Two, if we check our “human side” at the door we will be boring, joyless public speakers. Or panelists, presenters, meeting participants, whatever. And we will continue to feel crappy in the moments that could be the defining events of a self-actualized life. We will miss the chance to feel alive and let our audience feel alive too.
And three, the science is on the side of emotion. Take this 2017 article in Frontiers in Psychology, focusing on the rise of online learning. It includes a synthesis of recent findings, stating, “Numerous studies have reported that human cognitive processes are affected by emotions, including attention, learning and memory, reasoning, and problem-solving. These factors are critical in educational domains because when students face such difficulties, it defeats the purpose of schooling and can potentially render it meaningless.”
The best way to get in touch with your emotions is to get in touch with your body. Either move it (as my favorite mug says, “When in doubt, dance it out”) or center it. The main difference when the author works with actors and with nonactors is that a big portion of the session with nonactors is spent getting them loose enough in body and mind that they can surprise themselves and grow and change. Actors just have more practice. You might find it hard to give yourself permission to play, to act like a weirdo and not judge yourself for it, to give up trying to control everything, to be nothing but heart. It’s hard for the entirely understandable reasons. And yet, the good stuff happens on the other side.
Here’s another tool: At this point, it’ll come as no surprise that although our throats are meant to be a relatively passive passage for our breath and our sound…it doesn’t always work out that way. General anxiety or the specific fear that our emotions will get us in trouble cause most of us to tighten the muscles, so emotions won’t bubble up. Those throat muscles are fantastic at stifling us so we don’t come across as too much—and habitually overusing them undermines our attempts to figure out what just right might be. We’ve all witnessed panels or presentations where the speaker on the dais barely resembles a living, breathing human being. It’s possible to show up with a voice that’s so constricted by throat tension, and a mindset so governed by the sense that caring is uncool, that we don’t really show up at all. We’re stopping that routine right here and now.
Try this trick for relaxing the throat and see what it loosens up: place the tip of your thumb behind your top front teeth and pull hard while taking in a deep belly breath. You’ll feel the whole back of your neck and the spot between your shoulder blades engage and then release when you stop pulling. This movement puts your entire skull back into alignment with your spine. Actually, speech pathologists say it puts your entire body back into alignment. They call it “anchoring.” Try it now, perhaps with your eyes closed, and see if you can feel that passive passageway open up.
As with everything, context matters. And who each of us is and what each of us wants out of an opportunity matter too. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to bringing more emotion into your professional life. Some rooms don’t want your authentic self, and that puts you in a difficult position.
As visionary business leader and Columbia Business School professor Hitendra Wadhwa put it, “Today, the business world is on fire. Corporate leaders are witnessing a growing hunger, from inside their organizations and outside, for the workplace to reflect the right values—values such as inclusion, empathy, autonomy and service to humanity.” You are not alone. And no matter the room, you can always interrogate, feel, find, and redraw the line between responsible and radical for yourself. You can always ask yourself, How armorless can I be? How much more emotionally honest can I be without putting myself in a position that feels unsafe? Perhaps you can reveal that your frustration has turned to anger, or that your disappointment is really grief. Perhaps you can reveal yourself, or at least begin.