By Joanne Stevens, RTDNA Contributor
How many times have we heard a reporter on the air saying something like this: "Jim, just 19 minutes ago behind the Carver Elementary School (gasp)... police say (gasp)..." or how about: "After the break we'll introduce you to an incredible shelter dog (gasp)... The day before he was scheduled for euthanasia (gasp)... he saved the life of his night shift caretaker."
Uh-oh. Are they having an allergy reaction? A heart attack? Nope. They're trying to force a silly, wrong, unnatural way of breathing. I’m serious!
It's silly because too many of you think that a requirement of your reporting or anchoring jobs is to figure out how and where to suck in oxygen so you don't collapse. Please consider that the vast majority of us do not die once we've fallen asleep. And most of us spend entire days talking without taking moments to suck in air.
That's the good news for all of the video and radio journalists who wonder, “Where do I breathe?” Your trusty brain stem automatically does the work for you! Its job is to keep your diaphragm automatically pumping up and down. That's when it feels like your stomach is going in and out. This action increases our torso size, which automatically induces air to cascade into our lungs. Then your diagram pulls “in,” causing your lungs to compress and expel the air. It is this exhaled air that carries our spoken words to into the microphones and to the listeners' ears. It's really that simple! And it all happens whether you're breathing through your mouth or your nose, and whether you are speaking or not!
Time to Belly Dance
Skeptical? How about trying some layperson’s belly dancing to bring you around? Given that we can more readily observe our stomachs than our diaphragms, and because our stomachs also control torso dimension, we’ll now refer to this body part instead.
- Breathe in. If you follow your brain stem’s lead, you’ll do so by sticking your stomach out as you simultaneously breathe in. Yep, it's that schlubby look you"d never allow at the beach! And it’s the reason why some of my radio clients loosen their waistbands or belts before they go on-air. Feel the air passing down your throat into your lungs.
- Breathe out. Do this by pulling your stomach in-in-in towards your spinal cord. Try to do it slowly and deliberately. You can keep going until you feel as if they might collide.
- Boing! Let that stomach pop back out again! In doing so, your body cavity gets larger and you can feel that cool, dry air again cascading down your throat as it travels lower to re-fill your lungs.
- Now, breathe in to the count of 3… and out to the count of 3. In again, out again. In again, out again. In again, out again.
How does this equate to our jobs of speaking the news?
- First, stick out your stomach and inhale.
- Now how about adding a long, extended /shhhh/ sound to each count of 3 exhalation?
- Got that? Next, substitute that sound with /shhaaah/ (Aha! It’s a word!). Keep this word going, without stopping, as you exhale to the same count of 3.
- Lastly, inhale and then say, “The shah is shopping” as you exhale, feeling your stomach slowing moving towards your spine.
"Shirley shops for shoddy shirts."
"The chaise and chandelier in the chateau were in shambles." or
"Thruway officials say the passengers were tourists from Italy, on their way from New York City to Niagara Falls."
Having a bit of trouble with that last sentence? Try it again, but let your stomach ‘boing out’ after the word "Italy." In one second, your lungs have now fully refilled with air and you are good to go for the whole sentence.
Yes, we automatically breathe in and out from our stomachs. And knowing so should be sufficient to execute our spoken work! We should not turn ourselves into human straws, trying to suck in or gasp in air in by tightening our throats. Does this air even make it down to fill our lungs? No. Can a tight throat efficiently project the air that carries our words to our listeners? No.
I'll have more on breathing, resonance and effecting a strong-sounding, pleasant voice next time.
News consultant Joanne Stevens has written extensively about broadcast writing, reporting and anchoring, including columns in the former print version of RTDNA's Communicator Magazine, and earlier versions of the RTDNA website. She has taught at Columbia and New York University and serves as a news award judge for the New York Press Club. She has returned to RTDNA.org to offer a new series of News Coach columns with tips, best practices and more. Many of her previous columns are available on her website.