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Breathing and Speaking Onair

“I can’t breathe!”

Sometimes I feel like a pulmonologist.

“I must have allergies- my throat feels tight and I sound scratchy” … or an allergist.

Actually- these were 2 client complaints this past week.. and truthfully- I’d intended to write about breathing for my first formal blog.  After all- it’s important to all of us- oral journalists and everyone else.

We breathe in and out all day and all night without thinking about it.  The medulla in our brain sends a message to our diaphragm to contract. (The diaphragm is a fairly large dome-shaped muscle positioned under the lungs.)  As we ‘breathe in’ it contracts.. our abdomen expands- and air from outside our body is drawn into the lungs.  When we ‘breathe out’ the diaphragm pushes against our lungs- and air is expelled through our mouth or nose.
This is a pretty abbreviated explanation-i.e.. I’m leaving out the whole air pressure component.  In fact, when I explain it to my clients, I try to make it even simpler. 

Think of breathing this way:

When we breathe in it feels like we’re pushing our stomachs out- contrary to the flat-stomached aesthetic we all hope to flaunt in clothing and bathing suits.  When we breathe out- it feels like our stomach (I wouldn’t worry about the diaphragm for this part) is pushing in.. pressing against our lungs- and forcing air out of our mouth or nose.  Done properly- we’re inhaling to fill our lungs up as we would a balloon.  They’re huge- under our ribs- and have an amazing capacity for air volume. 
Full disclosure- we also have internal (inside the ribs) and external (outside the ribs) intercostal muscles at play here- pulling ribs up and out or down and in to aid in the process.  Again- it’s easiest to ‘just think stomach’ but if you’d like to picture these additional team members at work as well- have fun.
So- that’s it.  Breathing: One of the most basic, automatic life-sustaining physiological actions that our body performs from birth to death. 
And it has everything to do with speaking.  When the air leaves our body- it passes through our ‘vocal cords’ and they vibrate to make a sound.  They’re responsible for high- low- and ‘neutral’ pitch.  The speaking voice that a listener hears is crafted by pitch and the production of speech sounds… with the resonance of the sound coming mostly from our torso. . Think viola.. cello.. bass.. and the beautiful sounds they give us.
But when many anchors and reporters tackle the speaking part- 2 crazy things often happen: Emotion interferes with the autonomic breathing system as people attempt to turn themselves into human straws- trying to suck in air from the room (the noise you hear is the air whizzing down a very tight throat).  This effort to override the easy, efficient principles of nature is futile.  The air barely makes it into the lungs and the exhalation factor- whereby air should be ‘pumped’ from our body- is out of the equation. Our throats have no pumping mechanism.

Breathing Crazy Thing 2:  

By trying to ‘send out’ your voice from your throat (not a logical technique for success), a speaker’s throat tightens up.  He ends up feeling strained and the resonance from the vocal cords is mainly relegated to his throat and ‘face’- and not to his torso.  Consequently, the last words of sentences or phrases often die or crackle in the throat as sounds become strangled.  What’s happening here is that the speaker is trying to articulate (give speech sounds to) the paltry, trapped air in his throat- and not to the lovely full puffs of air that should be pumping out from the lungs.  

Bottom lines- gulping in air.. or trying to ‘send your voice out from your throat’  are incredibly inefficient techniques for breathing and speaking.       And the next time you hear “In Iceland today (gasp)..” or “Temperatures (gasp) slightly warmer in the afternoon..” – you’ll know this is really not gasp-worthy news.    

Previously featured on the Radio Television Digital News Association as the News Coach blog series.


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