Breathing — you’d think I would have learned how to do it intuitively by now. Apparently not, because I’ve whenever I have to speak for an extended period of time on Zoom, I wind up mildly but unmistakably gasping for breath, as though I’ve just walked up two flights of stairs. And it’s not just me. Once you start listening for it, you hear it everywhere: the panting, the pause mid-sentence as people take an extra breath, the strain in someone’s voice as they try to squeeze out a few more words despite feeling winded.
It drives me nuts. I worry that having to catch my breath during a presentation makes me sound nervous. I mean, I am mildly nervous, in general, about 60% of the time. But I take measures to hide that. For my own stupid lungs to turn on me in such an audible way is infuriating.
I blame Zoom, because I don’t remember this happening to me Before Zoom (BZ). But why? If anything, Zoom should make it easier to breathe while speaking. I’m always wearing sweatpants, after all, with no bra constricting my rib cage.
But apparently my mind is to blame, not my body. According to Eleni Kelakos, a public speaking coach, running out of breath while presenting to a group is a surefire sign of stage fright. “Being assaulted by fear and performance anxiety is something that happens when we step into the spotlight and feel the pressure of those eyeballs on us,” she told me. “When I was a young actress, the first time I got in front of a camera was terrifying — that single eyeball, looking at you.”
Assaulted by fear? That felt dramatic (maybe it’s her theatrical background). While, yes, I sometimes feel mildly nerve-y before unmuting myself on a work Zoom, I’ve also run out of breath while giving a very low-stakes presentation to a small group of coworkers who are nothing but kind to me. I’m just speaking, speaking — and then, inexplicably, panting.
But Kelakos was insistent. “It sneaks up on you!” she said amiably, when I told her I rarely feel unusually anxious before I begin running out of breath. Even if you’re someone who doesn’t typically think much about public speaking, she said, Zoom can be intimidating. “It’s a platform that removes the actual people from our presence — we don’t hear them breathing, we don’t get any feedback, and that can be off-putting,” she explained.
That rang true to me. In person, I feel pretty comfortable sitting in silence to gather my thoughts while speaking. But on Zoom, even the shortest pause seems to last forever. When I express that to Kelakos, she basically said, “That’s what I’ve been telling you.” Because we’re so divorced from the people we’re presenting to, the silence is loud — and we get self-conscious, she said.
It’s not just that you literally hear nothing when you pause during a Zoom presentation. It’s that what you’re missing is all the little noises that usually clue you into how you’re being received: quiet “hms” or laughter in response to something you said; the shuffling of papers or tapping of keys as people take notes; the rustling of clothing as someone shifts forward and catches your eye. Without that, you’re left wondering what everyone’s thinking, says Mary Alvord, PhD, a licensed psychologist and the founder of Resilience Across Borders. “And that’s what social anxiety is about: How am I being judged?”
So the reason I run out of breath while speaking on Zoom is, basically, anxiety. During any silence, I start wondering, Do I sound stupid right now? Is everyone bored? To drown out those thoughts, I speak too quickly and avoid pausing to even inhale. Maybe my subconscious is trying to make me pass out. Honestly, I get it.
Obviously the answer here is to speak more slowly. But, as I told Kelakos, I always worry that I’ll overshoot the mark and speak so slowly that people will think there’s something wrong with my WiFi. At this, she laughed loudly (I caught myself wondering if everything Kelakos does is some kind of public speaking strategy; I also began to get worried that she’s judging me for my phone presence), then suggested I record myself speaking slowly and play it back to reassure myself that I sound okay.
According to Dr. Alvord, an especially important time to modulate your pace to avoid running out of breath is when you first begin presenting. “I’ve noticed that people tend to start off by speaking really quickly, which is sort of this anxious response,” she said. As they loosen up, they naturally slow down.
Kelakos and Dr. Alvord also both insist that it’s important to be as calm as humanly possible before logging into Zoom in the first place. Shake out your hands, hips, and shoulders to loosen up your body, or visualize your “happy place” using all of your senses to get yourself into a zen state.
It’s helpful to personalize your audience, too. My technique while presenting is to stare at myself the entire time, but apparently that’s not the way to go. “You have to remember that you’re talking to actual people,” Kelakos said. To that end, she tapes a printed-out picture of eyeballs next to her computer’s camera, so she’ll have something human-like to look into while speaking. She’ll also ask participants to unmute themselves so she can get some auditory feedback while she presents (anarchy!). When she’s talking, she’ll very intentionally “let lines land,” and will pause as if she’s waiting for someone to chime in.
If you do start to feel short on air, Kelakos suggested an acronym: FBI, which stands for: Feet, Breath, Intention. “Find the floor with your feet; take a sip of water or exhale, both of which help you regain control of your breath; then return to your intention: What am I here to do?” she explained. I love an acronym, and can attest to the fact that remembering why I’m presenting ( to serve my audience, rather than to look good) always calms me down.
But also, it’s fine to remember that Zoom is weird. Kids stumble into view, people use virtual backgrounds that make them look like disembodied heads, the lighting is never quite right, you can’t tell if you’ve frozen or everyone else has frozen. If the worst thing that happens during your presentation is that you rush through it and wind up sounding like you just ran around the block, oh well. At least you get to wear sweatpants.