The Top Three Common Vocal Pitfalls to Avoid While Speaking

Part Two of Three: Breath-Based Vocalization

©Laura Handke, 2017

Stop what you’re doing right now (including reading this article), close your eyes, and take three deep breaths.

Upon opening your eyes, you will likely feel more calm, relaxed and present. That’s what conscious, deep breathing does; it’s one of the best ways to combat performance anxiety, otherwise known as “stage fright”, a regular companion of many speakers. I’ve been known to start a speech in my home Toastmasters club by saying, “Please join me in taking three deep breaths.” I received feedback like, “I have no idea what that had to do with your speech, but it sure relaxed me!”

Please humor me and, again, close your eyes, and take three deep breaths – this time being consciously aware of what’s happening within your body as you breathe. If you’re in a physical environment where you can lay down on your back (grab a yoga mat if you have one handy) before you begin to breathe.

Did your shoulders move up while you inhaled? They shouldn’t, at least not too much. Tense, upward shoulder movement is an indicator of what I’ll call “chest breathing”, trying to breathe engaging mainly the upper part of your chest, which substantially limits lung capacity.

Your stomach should expand when you inhale, while your rib cage is stretched and expanded, and your shoulders straight and relaxed. (You can see a video demonstration at; or just Google “YouTube Laura Handke Mini Voice Lesson”.) It’s easiest to experience this while lying down…your stomach should rise towards the ceiling or sky as you inhale, and then come down as you exhale while vocalizing. Once you get the hang of it on the floor, you can incorporate the same breathing process while up standing and speaking.

If you’re not accustomed to breathing this way, it may take a while before it’s solidified in muscle memory and becomes second nature…but the practice is worth it for anyone who gets up in front of a room full of people and speaks.

It’s also worth it for everyone who doesn’t, now that I think about it! Deep belly breathing has many benefits, including:

  • The relaxing, calming effect I mentioned earlier, and a relaxed speaker rubs off on the audience
  • A more fully oxygenated body, releasing endorphins in the brain
  • Improved air flow through the vocal folds, which reduces vocal fatigue, and improves the sound quality of your voice
  • Lowers the heart rate, and you’re less likely to feel dizzy

Deep breathing is recommended for everything from quitting smoking, to reducing physical pain, to increasing mental clarity. I venture to say deep breathing supports literally everything in our physical bodies, and emotional and mental states as well.

Avoid glottal onsets. Breathe starting with your nose and belly, not the upper chest. Speak with passion, with healthy vocal technique! Your throat will thank you, and so will your audience.

Speak with power and confidence; be remembered and be inspirational. 

HONE Your Message is coming to Toastmasters for Speaking Professionals October 17th. Stay tuned for details.

If peaceful conflict resolution is in your wheelhouse, come to the Oregon Mediation Associations’ 31st Annual Conference November 3rd & 4th in Portland, where I will be presenting HONE Your Message.

If you found this post helpful, please spread the love and pass it along to a friend!

Authentically Yours, Laura