Ever been told to speak from your diaphragm? Here’s what that means.

Have you ever noticed how a little kid breathes? They’re amazing, unencumbered little breathers. They breathe with their whole bodies; even their legs seem to move!

As those children grow up, stand up and start spending their lives wearing tight clothing, working on computers and driving cars, their breathing becomes more and more restricted, and they lose that beautiful and natural ‘whole body’ breathing they once had.

You might wonder what on earth a child’s breathing has to do with speaking and the voice. Well, in fact, breath is the voice, and I’d like to teach you how to improve your voice by learning to breathe fully and deeply from your diaphragm so that, in a sense, you’re speaking from your diaphragm.

What does ‘speaking from your diaphragm’ mean?

Have you ever been told to ‘use your diaphragm’ when you speak? Or perhaps to speak ‘from your stomach’?

What people mean when they say these things is that they want you to breathe low and deeply, as if into your belly, and use that breath to speak.

Of course, you can’t actually breathe into your belly. You can only breathe into your lungs, and what enables you to do that is your diaphragm.

The diaphragm is a muscle attached to the bottom of your rib cage; it looks a bit like a silky parachute, and it divides your body in two. It’s attached to your rib cage all the way around.

When you breathe in, your ribs move outwards, and your diaphragm moves downwards. When that happens, the organs underneath the diaphragm are pushed out of the way, which gives that feeling of breathing into your belly. As you breathe out, the diaphragm releases upwards, and your belly moves inwards once again.

So, although air can only go to your lungs, you can (and you should) actually feel each breath in your whole body.

Your diaphragm is the key to breathing, and breathing is the key to your voice.

It’s important to keep in mind that there is no one correct way to breathe. You breathe differently according to the situation and the activity. But when it comes to speaking, diaphragmatic breathing is essential.

Breath is so important for the voice because it is the voice. Try this; put your hand directly in front of your mouth and read the following out loud:

The sound I’m making now is created by breath passing through the vocal folds, causing them to vibrate.

Did you feel the breath on your hand? Without enough breath, your vocal folds will never vibrate enough to make much sound. So, it stands to reason that to have a powerful voice, you need to take a powerful breath.

Are you deep breathing with your diaphragm? Try this test.

Do you think you tend to breathe fully and deeply, using your diaphragm? Or are you what we call a shallow breather or a chest breather?

Let’s do a quick self-assessment. You can do this while sitting at your computer if you like.

  • Sit quietly and observe your breath. Where do you feel movement?
  • Put your hand on your chest. Do you feel it rise and fall?
  • Put the back of your hand on the back of your rib cage. Do you feel movement?
  • Put your hand on the side of your ribs. Do you feel your ribs expand?
  • How about your belly? What do you feel there?

Your observations are telling you how you’re breathing, which parts of your rib cage are expanding nicely and which are fixed or tense.

You can try the same exercise in front of a mirror. Ideally, you’ll see movement in your belly, but if you see movement mostly in your throat or shoulders, this is a red flag that you need to do some work on your breathing, if you’d like to have a powerful voice.

Another little exercise – this one is particularly good if you’ve discovered that you’re not feeling your breath right down to your belly – is to lie down on your back and pop a tissue box on your belly. When you’re lying down, you’re not holding yourself upright or holding your belly tight. See the difference as your belly raises the tissue box up and down effortlessly with your natural breath. This is what it is to breathe low and deeply, and this is the feeling you want to continue when you stand.

If you regularly practice yoga, you might think that you’ve got this breathing business all under control, and you’re half right. In yoga, you’re taught to control the breath – in with a pose, and out with a pose. Conversely, when you’re speaking, you don’t want to control the breath; you want it to be natural and free-flowing.

So you’re a shallow breather…

If you’ve realised that you’re not breathing as low and deep as possible, the bad news is that you’re missing out on accessing your best natural voice, the one that commands attention and conveys authority.

A shallow (or chest) breather only uses a small part of the lungs, and not enough breath for the voice means

  • restricted volume,
  • vocal fatigue from trying to be louder without enough air (the muscles are working extra hard),
  • increased nerves from breathing quickly, and
  • potentially speaking at a higher pitch than necessary, due to tension in the body.

To demonstrate what shallow breathing is doing to your voice, imagine you’re lifting something heavy–imitate the strain of lifting.  Do you feel how the tightness comes all the way into your throat? Now try to speak while you’re ‘lifting’ the object; do you hear the acute tension in your voice?

Alternatively, try sucking in your stomach in and talking. It doesn’t sound like your best voice; does it? You might consider thinking twice about the pants you choose for your next presentation!

If you’ve discovered that you’re not breathing in the optimum way, don’t despair. We can work on this, and the good news is that there are some solutions you can implement right away.

What you can do today to learn to breathe fully and speak from your diaphragm.

Diaphragm movement is involuntary. You can’t control whether it moves or not, but you can control the abdominal wall, and as you’ve learned, this needs to be flexible in order for the organs to make room for the diaphragm to move down and allow for the influx of air to create a lovely sound.

Think about all the things you do in a day: You’re at a desk. You’re on a computer. You’re driving. You’re looking at a device. Most things we do involve having our hands in front of us, which often results in our shoulders rotating forward and slumping, leading to our bodies being restricted and our breath staying up high in the body. This isn’t much of a problem at the time, but it becomes an issue when you stand up and walk into a meeting or presentation because you continue breathing like that, and it’s terrible for nerves and volume.

This is a classic problem my lecturer clients have. They sit and read and write for hours, then hop up to present to a room of hundreds of students, and unsurprisingly, find they have no power in their voice.

Luckily, there is a relatively quick and easy fix! Before you need to go to your meeting or presentation – and you can do this while you’re still sitting – put your hand on your belly, and breathe to your hand. Take 30 to 60 seconds of deep belly breathing to prepare your body. It’s a transition from being in one frame of mind to another.

Posture, balance and the ease of correctness.

When you are relaxed, at ease and breathing effectively, you will feel a state of balance in your body. You won’t be leaning forward or backwards. Your weight will be evenly distributed over both feet, and if you’re sitting, you will feel both seat bones on the chair. If you’re not in alignment, your ribs will not be flexible on both sides.

Consider your posture as well. If you’re slouching forward, your front ribs won’t be able to open, and you won’t be able to fill up your lungs all the way. If you tend to bend a little backwards or if your back is tight, your back ribs might not be moving at all. Any tension limits the flexibility of the ribs, and ideally you want your ribs to be flexible and be able to expand.

Breathing should feel easy, and it actually shouldn’t be loud. Most people, when they sigh, take a deep breath and sigh loudly. For me, this is an obvious indicator that they have a ‘closed’ or tense throat!  When your throat is relaxed, your airway is open and you’re breathing with your diaphragm; no one needs to hear you breathing.

Try yawning, slowly and deliberately. Think about yawning sideways and outwards, and feel your soft palate at the top of your mouth expand. This is the feeling you want in order to allow enough breath to create a powerful voice.

You know now that breathing deeply and fully, using your diaphragm, is essential for accessing your most powerful voice. Awareness is a significant factor in improving the voice, so I’m sure that the next time you need to use your voice to create an impression, you’ll be more mindful of your breathing and the fact that your breath is your voice.

If you’d like to learn to speak with impact in any situation, I offer private voice coaching for professionals. To get started, simply book your complimentary Voice Analysis Call.

The video below shows the movement of the ribs, lungs and diaphragm in everyday breathing. Having a visual to refer to can be useful in understanding how your body breathes.