Your perceived fluency isn’t just based on your English skill. It’s also based on the confidence with which you speak.
I’m a native English speaker, but my early childhood was spent abroad in The Netherlands. This is the country in the world with the highest percentage of fluent English speakers (where English is not the national language). What I noticed is that Dutch people always speak English confidently, even if they don’t have perfect English. So how can you exude confidence when speaking English?
Yes sorry, it’s the obvious answer and you should practice speaking English as much as possible, especially in situations that are outside your comfort zone. Don’t focus on perfect English, focus on trying to be understood.
The next time you need to use English in an important situation, you can imagine what will be discussed and prepare some points to make. It’s rare that you will be in a situation where the conversation is completely unexpected.
In social situations, conversations usually follow typical topics: What you do (your profession); why you are at the party/event/restaurant or who you know there; what is happening in sports or the news; interesting things you have done recently; interesting things you have planned.
In professional encounters, there’s usually a specific reason for a discussion. It could be that you are pitching a product or service. It could be that you are trying to get hired. Whatever the situation is, get your ideas and points ready and then think about how to explain them in English.
When you are nervous and your heart rate is high, it’s easy to speak too quickly to get all the words out. Speaking slower allows you to exude confidence, it allows you to project calmness and control. Speaking more slowly gives the impression that you have thought through what you have to say and are delivering the ideas with certainty. Speaking more slowly also gives you more time to gather your thoughts and decide how to present them.
This follows on from speaking more slowly. Pauses are small gaps of up to a few seconds and they have a number of benefits. Many of the great speakers of history used pauses to great effect.
Pauses allow you to gather your thoughts between points, they allow you to build tension before a big reveal, and they allow you to vary the rhythm of your speech. Pauses also show that you are in control of the conversation or speech and therefore demonstrate great confidence.
The main reason that pauses are so effective, however, is that they allow the audience to have time to digest what you have heard. If you are making a mind blowing point, let your audience think about it and be amazed. There’s a video on youtube of 5 minutes of Barack Obama’s pauses. He is a master of making a big point and letting it sink in. He is also known as one of the most confident and charismatic speakers of modern times. (I will now give you a moment to let that sink in).
Avoid Filler Words
“Um,” “ah,” “like,” “well,” these are all filler words that people use to fill gaps while they are thinking what to say. Normal conversation will always contain some, however overusing them will just make you sound like you don’t know what you want to say. Filler words also make it seem like you can’t handle a moment of silence.
The advice about avoiding cliches is a cliche in itself. However, like all good cliches, there’s a reason that it became a cliche. It’s best to make the point that you were going to make using a cliche in your own words. This will sound a lot more insightful.
Ask More Questions
Ask the person you are talking to advice and questions. This will take the pressure off you. If it seems like your partner in a conversation is enjoying a particular topic, ask follow up questions, or give your own opinions on that topic.
Enjoy your attempts to speak English. If you seem to be enjoying the process, you will seem more confident in the points that you are making. It’s much more fun to chat to someone who is enthusiastic and having a good time than someone on the verge of panic.
Make Mistakes And Don’t Apologise For Them
You will improve more quickly if you step out of your comfort zone and try to push your boundaries. Don’t apologise for weak English. Most native speakers regularly speak to non natives and aren’t too bothered if you can’t speak 100% fluently. Speaking is about communicating, it’s not a language test (unless you are taking a language test!)
So I’d like to summarise the last 9 detailed points by saying that, confidence is really about letting go of the details. It’s about focusing on gettin the ideas that are in your head into the heads of those you are communicating with. If you keep that in mind, you will go a long way to improving your fluency and English speaking confidence.