My default setting is to talk fast and finish what I have to say quickly in case my listeners get bored, but more to the point, in case I get bored with myself. Over the years, this caused me a great deal of trouble. Some people could not follow what I was saying and didn’t care. Others did not follow what I was saying and told me so, thus making me repeat myself but only more quickly this time as I felt I wasted enough time already and needed to finish even more quickly. Before I knew it, I was disappearing down my own vortex of anxiety and frustration, to the point of being a pretty poor speaker and debater. But, I needed to get better because I felt I had something to say and say it effectively. It was a challenge I had to win.
As I grew older, I realised the fault lay with me, not others. However, being aware of the problem is one thing, fixing it is quite another. Of course, I tried to slow my delivery down a notch or two but by then, I was getting too old to be fixed, even by my own efforts. My problem was the false nature of the method I used to slow myself down.
What I did was to speak at the same speed as before but; with a horribly long pause between sentences, which seemed like an eternity to me. I basically introduced multiple ‘pregnant silences’ that were awkward to both my audiences and myself. So, instead of getting better, I felt I was getting worse. I even attempted to engage the services of a speech coach but that came to nothing in the end because the person I found thought I was seeking work on stage as an amateur actor and therefore he was trying to get me to ham up my delivery with sweeping arm gestures and sideway glances for dramatic effect.
Paradoxically, I am quite patient while listening to others and able to relax and take on board what my interlocutor is saying in a relaxed and almost serene manner however, the moment I take the floor, so to speak, I go nuts! I take a lungful of air and launch into what might be described as a tirade of verbiage without refilling my lungs until I am almost ready to faint. Why I am in a state of Zen while listening and in a state of hysteria while talking is a mystery to me.
Then one day ‘Epiphany’ came along unannounced in the form of three simple words. I was watching TV when a young actor related an advice he was given by an old mentor who was helping him with his delivery. The advice was: “Remember to breathe dear boy”. It was like a glorious smack in the face for me. Remember to breathe! The idea is astonishingly simple, yet apposite. It really struck such a chord with me that I began to gradually apply this simple piece of advice to my own style of delivery.
This session of introspection was extremely useful but I needed to learn to breathe more frequently than once every 2 minutes like I was doing. So, over the coming weeks, months and years I learned to take short and slow inhalation/exhalation not just between sentences but, between phrases, even words.
The trick I employ now is to over-punctuate my speech in my own head. I imagine lots of full stops, commas, and semicolons liberally scattered all over the text I am delivering. I then use those momentary pauses to refuel with oxygen. But the biggest intake of breath I take is just before I get up to speak, which I reckon sucks out half the air in a decent sized room so much so, there is always a danger that the audience might black out due to sudden starvation of oxygen. Like most people, I do get nervous when I stand up to speak. So this huge amount of air at the start helps settle my nerves down somewhat. After a couple of minutes, I am off and away and I ration my breathing to small amounts on frequent basis. Little and often, you might say.
So what am I like now? Well, I leave this to others to judge but from my perspective and to be perfectly honest, I am not brilliant and I wish I were. However, I am much, much better than I was a few years ago and I actually enjoy debating and talking. Can I get any better? I doubt it. There are those who are born brilliant speakers and debaters; alas I am not one of them. But I am an improved version of my former self.
I am sure the mantra of ‘remember to breathe’ could apply to other stressful activities. We can all benefit from breathing regularly and deeply before we do something intricate, precise, exacting or stressful? Like inserting a needle in a patient’s vein, taking a penalty, proposing to a sweetheart, walking a tightrope, and so on. If it works for singers who do breathing exercises as part of their warming up routine before they perform, it should work for the rest of us.
These days the only line I rehearse and take with me every time I stand up to speak in public is the phrase: ‘Remember to Breathe’
If you have not heard this advice before, be my guest and take it for free, I am sure it will stand you in good stead next time you speak in public.