It’s about this time of year that I will usually opine some thoughts about embracing the new year and making changes that will positively impact on your performance in the presentation room in the coming months. However, that all sounds quaintly old fashioned (not to mention deliciously carefree) against the backdrop of January 2021.

As we face the prospect of another six weeks or so (at least) in lockdown (in the UK), for many of us the early incredulity and novelty of locking down – in various states – to minimise the Covid risk has now become a mundane and rather dull reality. We have now been doing it long enough that it has become something akin to doing a stretch of porridge – a quaintly old fashioned expression for doing jail time.

For some – especially in the countryside – it may feel like being ‘on tag’ or strolling around an open prison (but prison nonetheless), while for others who lack decent space lockdown is more like hard time. For a great many too, ‘working at home’ is a misnomer – rather the situation is better described as ‘sleeping at the office’.

The importance of breath for health (and presentation)

So how are we going to cope with the next couple of months? Some of you will have read my last article on the importance of breath and this month’s article looks at some of the more practical aspects of the breathing process. As well as helping us to get through the next stretch of lockdown, a focus on developing technique and maximising this most natural of acts will bring benefits that go beyond health and wellness.

Effective and engaged breathing will help you to overcome nerves and help to put you in control, whether making an important deal make or break call (or indeed a video call where your emotions are on display), pitching to a client or presenting to a floor full of delegates.

Breathe properly and feel the difference

So how does one breathe properly? As we breathe without feeling the need to do so (thanks to the marvellous construction of the living body), we can easily fall into the habit of breathing too shallowly. Habits are formed… habitually… so changing them requires making a conscious effort to do so. So it’s all very well running through one-time breathing exercises for an instant result, but the trick is to repeat these, often and over time, to build up a new habit.

While some people need the reinforcement of structured wellness practices such as Yoga or Tai Chi classes, improving your breathing can actually begin without even leaving your chair. Both the aforementioned practices promote the benefits of deep, meaningful breaths. At the root of these is a rather simple concept. Focus on the belly and not the lungs. If you focus on the lungs then you will naturally breathe too high. Focus on the belly (as you exhale it moves out) and you will naturally breathe deeper. To frame this process in a different way, think of a balloon – you breathe into the bottom of a balloon, and not the top!

The next step: a simple exercise

The following exercise is one that I have prescribed many times over the years to anxious speakers and it is just as effective for bringing a sense of personal calm, balance and control. If we cannot control what is going on outside, then we can at least bring some personal control inside. Make peace with the fact that you are not going anywhere in the next couple of months, get your head down, do your porridge and breathe.

Stand or sit in a neutral and aligned position and release any tension in your shoulders, neck and face.

  • Imagine that your whole upper torso is an empty box and that when you breathe in, you are filling the box from the bottom up with air (you’re not – the movement is the diaphragm pulling down and displacing the abdominal viscera)
  • As you inhale, place a hand on your abdomen and focus on the breath reaching that hand and pushing it outwards
  • Try to keep your shoulders and upper chest as relaxed as possible.
  • Slowly inhale through the nose or mouth on a mental count of 4 and exhale on a count of 6 and let your body breathe in again at its own pace when it is ready. It will not let you die.
  • Once you have mastered this technique (which is not a new way of breathing, but the way our respiratory function is designed), you will notice that you are taking in more air on slower inhalation cycles; i.e. you are not ‘panic-breathing’ and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for rest and digest.
  • Even a few minutes of this type of deep breathing every day will help to relax you, bring a sense of calm as well as give you a stronger voice.

Try it.  What have you got to lose?  It can’t harm you and don’t even try to say ‘I don’t have the time’.  We all have the time and we can help to extend that time by looking after our breathing.