Some people will find this very hard to believe but there was a time when I was had very little confidence and struggled to start conversations, even with people I knew! Being the youngest of three children I was always seemed the slowest to catch on and quite often I was the butt of jokes as my brother and sister both thought I was spoilt.
Entering my teens wasn't much better, we were the only black family in a white Catholic school. My sister had already left and my brother was in his final year so at times I felt pretty isolated. I'm sure teenagers everywhere go through a similar internal battle but things started to change when I started singing.
The first thing I noticed was to sing well required a different type of breathing that I didn't do when I was talking. In order to get through phrases of songs I needed to take deep breaths, deep down in my stomach which took practice but made it so much easier to sing well.
As a shy teenager, all I could hear when I started to talk was my heart beating faster and this would distract me so much that I couldn't think about what I was going to say.
I learnt how to spot when my heart rate was speeding up. As soon as felt that I was feeling nervous, I would draw in slow deep breaths, holding them for few seconds, to calm myself down and help to strengthen my lungs to control my flow of air.
The other side of my nervousness was the prospect of looking into someone's face to talk to them. That got my nerves going like nothing else! I'd do anything to avoid looking into someone eyes and talk to them. Then one day whilst looking in the mirror, I discovered that I could look at my eyelids and it still looked like I was looking into my eyes. I could actually give the illusion of looking at someone but not looking at them. This helped my confidence as I could maintain eye contact for full conversation and come across as engaged and interested.
I do this a lot when I'm singing in front of an audience. Most of the time I focus on the tops of peoples heads or the back of the room. Most people think I'm looking at them but that is because my eyes are not looking down at the ground. The other great thing when doing this is you stop guessing what people are thinking based on their expression, which can be very off putting.
Confidence is not only about talking clearly and maintaining eye contact, it is mostly about knowing what to say. Over the years I found having a few standard questions are a great way to start a conversation or engage with others.
The most common conversation in the UK is about the weather so I try to avoid that! I prefer to ask questions that are very open and give the person being asked plenty of opportunity to elaborate if they like. Questions like: Have you lived here long? What time did you arrive?
Have you travelled far? How do you know my friend so and so? How long have you known my friend so and so?
Once the conversation has started it is important to listen closely for prompts that will form your next question. Imagine you are interviewing the person you are talking to and they've missed out some key information that doesn't make sense, well that's should be your next question. E.g. to the question; How do you know so and so? Their answer is; we went to school together. You could ask; was that High School or Primary School. What part of the country was that in? How many years ago was that? Did you live near each other now? When you get into the swing of it, you should find it easy to bounce one question off the next.
If you currently don't feel confident, try improving your confidence by practising on family members or friends. They may be surprised that you have found your voice and I can bet every person you practice on will love the new communicative you!