Research shows that 70% of people will experience the 'Imposter Syndrome' at some stage in their life.
There are conflicting statistics about how many people fear public speaking. But we know that it is a common fear. And I am willing to bet that there is a significant overlap between people who experience the Imposter Syndrome and people who fear public speaking.
One of my clients described her experience with the Imposter Syndrome. She didn’t feel that she deserved her promotion. Every time her manager asked to see her, she thought he was about to reveal that he had ‘found her out’. This was extremely stressful for her. She had never heard of the Imposter Syndrome.
Her experience perfectly illustrates the two main features of the Imposter Syndrome. 1) Feeling that you are not worthy or your achievements are undeserved. Often people believe that there has been a mistake or they have had some luck that explains their success. 2) Worrying that you will be exposed as a fraud.
This article, published in the International Journal of Behavioural Science, explains the syndrome more fully.
How the Imposter Syndrome shows up in public speaking
I am sure that the Imposter Syndrome underlies a lot of fear about public speaking. If any of these thoughts are familiar, you probably feel like an imposter.
What you can do about it
There is a TED talk by Valerie Young about the Imposter Syndrome. This funny and insightful talk has some great tips for handling the Imposter Syndrome. Her tips are equally applicable to managing a fear of public speaking.
Valerie says that talking about the Imposter Syndrome can help, but it is not enough. You have to reframe your thinking.
Let’s apply this to public speaking. You could tell yourself that you have been asked to speak on the subject because you have a unique story or perspective, even if there are others with more experience. Instead of worrying about difficult questions, you could take the time to anticipate likely questions and then remind yourself that you are well prepared.
She says that when people realise they have the Imposter Syndrome, they often want a quick fix, but it doesn’t work like this. You have to work hard at it.
It is the same with public speaking. It takes a long time to become a great public speaker. And if you are plagued by self-doubt, it will take longer. But with practice and persistence, anyone can improve.
Finally, she says that our feelings are the last thing to change. To get over the Imposter Syndrome, we need to learn to act more confidently first. Eventually, this will make us feel more confident. But this process will take some time.
I coach people to ‘fake it until you feel it’. A confident speaker has natural and expressive gestures, uses pause and eye contact effectively, talks in a conversational but energetic style, and moves around the stage with ease. All of this is learnable. You can learn to present as a confident speaker even if you don’t yet feel it. Eventually, your confidence will catch up to your competence.
My own experience as an imposter
I was promoted to a management position in my twenties before I felt ready. I recognise now that it was my work ethic and attitude that got me promoted rather than my skill level or experience. I had the potential to be a good manager, and my organisation was backing me to deliver. I wish I could have reframed my thinking along those lines at the time!
Even now, I can fall into the ‘I am not an expert on this’ trap. I coach people with a fear of public speaking, and I have moments of self-doubt. I am a good public speaker, but I know others who are much better than me. Then I remind myself that doesn’t make them better coaches. And, my strength is I am someone who used to be very fearful of public speaking. This has helped me empathise with my clients and design the course they need.
Finally, this Toastmasters article on the Imposter Syndrome points out the flaw in our thinking that we are not qualified to speak on something we are knowledgeable about simply because someone else knows more than us.
“Don’t confuse being the expert with being an expert. There is plenty of room for many experts on the same topic.”
An obvious but excellent point!
Article by Catherine Syme
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I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.