The Breath-Thought Connection
Let’s say you spent all night preparing for this morning’s presentation.
You practice what you want to say over and over again in your head on the way to the office.
You walk into the meeting well prepared and gather what you need to present.
Everything is ready, you stand up to speak, You open your mouth….and everything you practiced goes out the window.
You feel tension in your chest as you inhale, your tongue gets caught as you search for the words that you had no trouble rattling off in front of the bathroom mirror this morning, and you can’t stop thinking about how poorly you’re doing and how bad you must look.
You know what you’re talking about, but you can’t get the self critical voice out of your head that won’t allow you to communicate what you know.
You’re not the only one, I hear the same basic story from clients all the time.
Often there is a disconnect between our breathing patterns and our thought process.
Picking up from our previous episode on using diaphragmatic breathing to support communication, we’ll be building on that practice here with a discussion on the Breath-Thought connection.
The Connection between our breath and our thoughts affects the way we punctuate our speech, how we support an intention, and will either encourage or discourage filler sounds like uh, and um.
To get a feel for how the breath thought connection functions I want you to picture yourself when you are silently developing an idea or processing text that you are reading in a book or off a screen.
Now picture yourself in the audience of a lecture hall or performance listening to what is being communicated..
There is a big difference between how we breathe when we are listening and thinking about what others are saying and how we breathe when we are voicing our own thoughts.
We also tend to pay attention to the patterns of the speaker when we are on the listening end.
It’s when we start to engage our voice to articulate our thoughts that the opportunity for a disconnect comes into play.
This is because all of a sudden our breath must go from supporting the requirements of a body in contemplation to supporting the more complicated and error prone processes of arranging and giving voice to thought in a way that will be understood by the thought process of a completely separate person.
It’s a small miracle.
If we aren’t deliberate in our breathing, especially in public speaking, it’s easy to get scrambled, hung up, and find ourselves unsupported.
You’re not alone in having wound up tongue tied or scatterbrained at an important moment when you’ve had the floor.
But, the good news is that we can employ our breath as a tool to set ourselves up to be more powerful, conscious, and clear communicators.
Here’s the important idea: One Breath is connected to One Thought.
An easy way to get a handle on how this works is to look at how punctuation functions in the written word.
A new thought on the page begins with a capital letter at the beginning of the sentence, and the thought ends at the period.
We also have commas, semicolons, and other punctuation that tells us when to pause, or when the thought is going to split or shift focus or attention.
When we are reading the written word punctuation allows us to understand the organization of the words on paper.
The punctuation has an effect on the meaning of and imparts nuance to the idea.
But, when we are speaking out loud, our listener doesn’t have the benefit of written punctuation to help them parse out the information as we deliver it, so as a speaker we need to be aware that we provide them a different set of cues to accomplish the task that punctuation serves in the written word.
The cueing system that punctuates our speech is the breath.
It may sounds strange, but your listener, or your audiences will breathe along with you, and how you use your breath affects how they receive what you have to say.
One breath connected to one thought
Imagine that each of your thoughts begins with a capital letter
To mark the beginning of your thought draw a diaphragmatic foundation breath.
We’re opening the throat and letting the air drop into the diaphragm
This signifies the beginning of a new thought to your listener, and it provides your brain and your voice with strong foundational support.
The audience knows we’ve reached the end of our idea or our thought, or that our thought will now take on additional information or change shape, when we pause and take another full breath.
Breathing with your punctuation is a great way to deliver your message in a clear and engaging manner.
You will recall in our first episode: The Importance of Breath, that we tend to diaphragmatically support our thoughts naturally when we have command of our content or are passionate about what we have to say.
In these instances the breath thought connection is effortless, and those moments where everything seems to click can feel incredible.
But we won’t always have the benefit of feeling that we have full command of what we want to communicate, we may not have time to prepare extensively, or we may simply be too nervous to be swept away by the confidence that comes with passion.
Nervous sporadic breathing will undermine even the most well planned and thought out communication.
So how do we set ourselves up for success in these situations where we are unprepared or nervous?
If we have to wing it how do we produce a confident comprehensible narrative that is free of fillers like uh and um?
Here you want to employ and breathe with what is called a directive thought.
To begin with, get into the habit of identifying your overall goal for an interaction.
Establishing a goal will help you to understand your intentions clearly.
When choosing this intention, I want you to focus on one that enables your content.
A few useful intentions to breathe with are:
“l am going to teach them” or “I’m going to share with them” or “I’m going to reveal to them”
Examples of thoughts that are not directive and result in that nervous sporadic breath support are:
“I hope I don’t forget what I want to say” or “ I wonder who is in the audience” or “ I wish i had worn my other shoes”
These types of thoughts are not ‘actionable’ and many times the breath connected to this thought process becomes unsupported and rises up into the chest.
In addition, when these types of thoughts are partnered with a deep supported breath the audience can sense that we are communicating a subtext that may not have anything to do with what we mean to be communicating.
Choose a goal that involves communicating something you have ownership of, something that you are secure in knowing.
This intention will act as an organizer for the words that aren’t ready yet.
You want to employ an actionable thought so that you give yourself boundaries to successfully improvise within.
Then draw a diaphragmatic breath and keep your intention in the back of your mind as you begin to teach, share, or reveal what you know.
Let’s talk for a moment about what it looks like when the breath-thought connection is not working in a way that serves us effectively.
I think that this will really resonate with most of us.
We have all seen someone stumble through a presentation with “um’s” and “ah’s” peppered in at every pause.
Those are called fillers.
We fall back to filling the beginning of a line with habitual articulation of something like an “uh” or a receptive “um” or “like” or “and” because the thought is not quite ready in our mind.
We’ve opened our mouth to speak, often without a supportive breath, but haven’t lined up a full idea or thought, so we end up closing that void as we decide what to say with a filler sound.
“Um, so we get a filler, uh, in all the spots where, ah, we uh, would normally find a uh capital letter or punctuation.”
As we talked about earlier, punctuation is the natural place for both the speaker and the listener to take a breath.
It’s when we take a breath to speak without an intention, and before we have a concrete thought, an image, or a feeling to communicate that our impulse is to produce sound to fill the silent gap between the initial breath and the first word.
To set ourselves up for success, we need to give ourselves the actionable intention first.
Your foundation breath should be used in support of an existing thought or intention.
First think, then breathe, then speak.
(Thought) Teach what I know about the relationship of twins
(Speak) While the children of identical twins are legally first cousins, genetically, they are half siblings.
But of course I’m not suggesting that you must always finish each sentence in one big breath.
The initial breath you take as you begin a new thought is called a foundation breath for a reason.
You build the thought on that foundation.
What if you have a lot to say in one long thought, but not enough of your foundation breath to support saying it all?
We all experience running out of breath while we are speaking.
When we are truly connected to what we are saying and even if we are employing proper breath support we sometime simply run out of breath.
That is when you can certainly take in enough air to finish out the thought.
We call this a building breath. It is not a full foundational breath and sometimes cannot even be detected by your listener.
You may have heard this referred to as a catch breath. I encourage you to think of this additional short inhale as a building breath.
You want to open the throat and allow a small inhale as you continue speaking to support the rest of your thought, but not a full foundational inhale that would cue your listener that you are beginning a new thought.
When you reach the portions of your thought that you do not have enough air to sustain choose those breaks in the idea that would be punctuated in the written word to allow that small additional building breath.
Like at a comma.
Then, at the end of the thought you can take that moment to repeat the process of first think, then breathe, then speak.
Use the pause to take another breath in support of your intention or the next thought, and then continue with what you have to say on that new breath.
If you are reciting shakespeare or have a complicated argument to voice, you may take many building breaths to finish one thought.
Let’s use a Shakespeare sonnet to explore foundation and building breaths in context.
Here’s one thought that is four lines long on one breath.
“When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties.”
Again,there are four lines here, but all belong to one lengthy sentence.
Each line, in this case ends in a comma.
If I were to take a big foundation breath at any of those commas I would likely cue my that I was beginning a new thought in that location.
This would leave them confused when what followed was really a fragmented continuation of the idea they had just heard.
But it might be difficult for me to get that whole thought out on just my initial foundation breath.
So, this is where we can employ a building breath at an appropriate pause point, usually somewhere that the thought branches or changes shape.
In this case, we will take that building breath after the end of the second line.
“When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies, (Building Breath)
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties.”
When we examine a sentence on the page it’s pretty easy to find where the best break for a building breath would be were we to read the sentence aloud.
But speaking to an audience without the benefit of a text is a different challenge that requires something a little different from speaker.
You need to both provide the listener with a punctuation road map via breath, and also incorporate the use of deliberate pauses in order to provide our audience with a comfortable and comprehensible tempo.
When we are wrapped up in the challenge of voicing ideas in almost the same moment we’ve constructed them, compounded by the pressures of the moment, it’s very easy to be swept away by a rapid sequential delivery of thoughts.
We feel the pressure to be “on” because all eyes are on us and we have the floor.
Allowing pauses in expression, for moments of silence in a communication, can be tricky, but pauses are very important to achieving a digestible and confident tempo.
Once we get going it’s easy to think that we will lose people’s attention if we pause for too long, or that we will be perceived as reaching or making it up as we go along.
But the author of a thought has a different perception of that thought than their audience.
The speaker knows what comes next and is tasked with deciding how to express it, but the audience is privy only to the delivered content, and if that content is hurled at them without built in pauses for them to internalise it they can’t follow what you’re saying in the first place.
It’s the filler sounds like um and uh that create the impression that you are unprepared or lack confidence or command of material.
Your listener needs pauses between thoughts.
Those split seconds of silence are essential to supporting what you have to say.
It’s in the pause that we afford the audience time to process- for the gravity of a statement or the connection between one thought and another to land.
When you’re speaking, a pause of a second or two can feel like forever in your head, but you can have confidence that your listener won’t hear it that way.
Incorporating pauses is a great way to improve presence, audience comprehension, tempo and clarity.
Here are a few things to keep in mind from what we’ve just discussed.
Your breath punctuates your speech.
How you breath and when you breath informs your listener on how to receive what you are telling them.
You can support yourself by understanding your communicative goal and preparing an actionable thought liek “I’m going to teach”, “I’m going to share”, “I’m going to describe”, or “I’m going to reveal”.
And lastly, become comfortable incorporating silence and pauses to allow your audience to take in what you said and employ a deliberate foundation breath before each thought to help you avoid filler sounds like “um” and “uh”.