Research shows that 70% of people have experienced the ‘imposter syndrome’ at some stage in their life and that 75% of people are nervous about public speaking. I would be willing to bet that there is a huge overlap between these two groups.
One of my clients recently told me about her experience with the imposter syndrome. She had been promoted into a job that she didn’t feel she was up to and every time her manager called her into his office she was convinced he was about to tell her that he had ‘found her out’. This was extremely stressful for her and even more so because she had never heard of the imposter syndrome and thought she was the only person to feel this way.
Her experience illustrates the two main features of the imposter syndrome. 1) Feeling that you are not worthy or achievements are undeserved. Often people believe that they have been wrongly promoted or 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 believe that the imposter syndrome underlies a lot of fear about public speaking. These common thoughts about upcoming presentation are good indicators that you may be experiencing the imposter syndrome.
What you can do about it
Another of my clients pointed me to a talk by Valerie Young from the TED archives about the imposter syndrome. This funny and insightful talk has some great tips for handling the imposter syndrome that are also highly relevant to handling a fear of public speaking.
Valerie says that while talking about the Imposter Syndrome can help it is not enough. You have to reframe your thinking. For example, 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 really hard at it. It is the same with public speaking. It takes a long time to become a great public speaker if you are riddled with self-doubt, but with practice and persistence anyone can get there.
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. One of the strategies that I teach people to manage the fear of public speaking is 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 and you can therefore learn to present like a confident speaker even if you don’t yet feel it. Eventually your confidence will match your competence.
My own experience as an imposter
I am definitely part of the 70% who has felt like an imposter. Not so much these days but certainly when I was younger and promoted into a management position when I was still in my twenties. I knew that others thought highly of me but I felt that they had way over-estimated my abilities. I realise now that it was my potential that got me promoted rather than my skill level or experience. I was seen as someone with ability and a good work ethic and attitude who had the potential to do well if I was given the right opportunities. I wish I could have reframed my thinking along those lines at the time!
After reading the article highlighted above I realised that my imposter syndrome started back in school. I was a high achiever but I worked very hard. I attributed my successes to my work ethic, not my intellect. This was exacerbated by knowledge that to the surprise of my teachers, I had performed poorly on PAT tests at primary school (supposedly a measure of IQ). I now believe that my work ethic played a role in my achievements, but my intellectual strengths are not easily measured by IQ tests. I have an ability to see connections between things and move comfortably between ‘big picture thinking’ and detail – attributes which make me a good strategic thinker.
Even now I occasionally fall into the ‘I am not the expert on this’ trap. I coach people with a fear of public speaking but I have moments of self-doubt because, although I am a good public speaker, I know people who are better than me. Then I remind myself that 1) that doesn’t make them better coaches 2) my personal 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 very good point!
Article by Catherine Syme
I strongly believe that anyone can manage their nerves and become a better public speaker with the right support.