Our delivery training service has seen it all: every kind of story, every type of purpose, and every sort of audience. As we first sit down with our clients, we’ve noticed that many of them struggle with a specific affliction: “The Imposter Syndrome.” In short, they feel as if they aren’t the right person for the job, or can’t adequately deliver their message. In fact, it’s estimated that 2 out of 5 professionals consider themselves to be frauds.

So, where does this psychological phenomenon spring from? And how can you address it before your next speaking event or presentation?

The Science Behind It

Most people who experience the Impostor Phenomenon (IP) would not say,”I feel like an impostor.” Yet, when they read or hear about the experience, they say, “How did you know exactly how I feel?” And how do they feel? Even though they are often very successful by external standards, they feel their success has been due to some mysterious fluke or luck or great effort; they are afraid their achievements are due to “breaks” and not the result of their own ability and competence.” – Dr. Pauline R. Clance (Source article)

The term “Imposter Syndrome” was first used in a psychological study of high-achieving women, written by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in the late 1970’s. They noticed that women who were doing well in their careers felt they were being overvalued or weren’t intelligent enough, even with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Continued studies revealed that 70% of people have felt like a fraud or imposter at one point in their lives. This is especially true for students; a 1990 study revealed that up to 85% of graduate students experienced Imposter Syndrome characteristics. The feeling is not considered a disorder or an inherent part of a personality, which means that the phenomenon can be addressed.

Imposter Syndrome can stem from a variety of sources. One study revealed that unsupportive friends can aggravate the feeling of inadequacy. Other major events like a job promotion, an increase in work responsibilities, and even receiving too much praise from others can make you feel as if you are going to be “unmasked.”

Imposter Syndrome can also rear its ugly head before a big event, as we have seen with presenters who feel like they are the wrong choice for the event, or aren’t an expert on the material. Have you experienced The Imposter Syndrome before a big speech or presentation? Have you ever asked yourself…

What gives me authority to deliver this speech?

Why was I selected?

Am I really an expert in this area?

Could they have chosen someone else? 

If those questions are eerily familiar to you, don’t panic. Many people who experience Imposter Syndrome are also unwilling to admit it or seek outside help about it. “One of the characteristics of the imposter syndrome is that you can never admit it. Because, of course, if you put your hand up and say “I feel like a fraud”, then there’s the possibility that someone will say “ah yes, we were wondering about that, could you please leave now.” So it’s safer to say nothing. But the doubts remain. Even if others are suffering too.” Hugh Kearns, University of Manchester

How Can You Address Imposter Syndrome? 

If you’re feeling the pressure of an upcoming event as well as a massive feeling of inadequacy, the first thing you must do is take a deep, lung-filling breath. Then consider these ways to mindfully work through your concerns:

Try A Power Stance 

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy created one of the most viewed TED talks of all time with her presentation, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” She not only explores her own personal experience with Imposter Syndrome, but discusses how to overcome it with a unique, physical approach. In essence, she advocates taking time before an event to hold a “power stance” to boost your confidence and prevent feeling like a phony. Not sure how it works? This TED talk is worth 21 minutes of your day:

Admit It

The Imposter Syndrome is aggravated when you are isolated from friends and peers, which leaves you feeling as if you have a shameful secret. An important step can simply be to share this information with those closest to you.

“In the workshop that I gave, participants all agreed that the experience was both encouraging and cathartic. It’s nice to know that you aren’t alone in your IP feelings, so talk to your colleagues, your friends, or your peers about it. More than likely, you’ll find out that you aren’t the only one who feels this way. The important thing is not to allow IP feelings to impair your academic work, and to realize that it wasn’t dumb luck that landed you that scholarship or faculty position, but your talent, skills, and hard work.” – Sally Heath

Take Stock of Your Value

Is there a way you can tally your accomplishments, experience, and accolades? Consider creating a resume for yourself, or some physical expression of your past experience. The evidence exists, it’s merely a matter of collecting and facing it for yourself. It’s common for high achievers to think about the things they haven’t done versus face the things they already have, which worsens Imposter Syndrome.

Avoid Comparisons

We’ve noticed a common thread between speakers who experience imposter syndrome: they compare themselves to others heavily, and deeply feel as if someone else would be better for the job. Your peer comparison is likely to be inaccurate: you can’t tally away character traits, experience, and personal intuition in your field. Learn to look at others more objectively.

“Practice seeing other people as they really are, with their own needs and foibles, strengths and weaknesses. Learning to see and accept flaws in others will allow you to see yourself in the same way—with compassion and understanding.”Joyce Roche

Develop a Mantra

Worrisome situations like a speaking engagement can aggravate Imposter Syndrome. The fatal combination of stress alongside the feeling that you aren’t worthy of being there may be aided by first addressing the stress. Consider using a mantra such as “I’m meant to be here,” or other meditative breathing techniques which reduce anxiety.

Take It From Us: You’re Great

You weren’t accidentally hired, didn’t accidentally learn how to do your job, and weren’t accidentally selected for this particular event. You did it! You’re the greatest! Own the compliments you receive with a hearty “thank you” instead of a sheepish “well, I could have done better.”

Recognize the Difference Between “Expertise” and “Perfection”

Think of all of the incredible, talented people you whom you admire and consider to be experts in their particular field. They still aren’t perfect: these are two completely separate things. Perfection doesn’t exist within expertise, experience does. Don’t become hung up on reaching “perfect” at your next event, just bring the experience you already have to the stage.

Lower your standards of perfection. You don’t have to attain perfection to be worthy of the success you’ve achieved. If you continually set the bar at a level of perfection, you will always feel disappointed. Set the bar at a realistic level so that you don’t always fall short.” – Lauren Feiner, PsyD

Be sure to objectively look at your own achievements before you approach any task that makes you feel inadequate. As with others we have trained for presentation delivery, sometimes all that is required is an honest admittance that you feel outclassed, followed by the reassurance from someone else that you are, in fact, pretty amazing at what you do.

Question: Have you ever experience Imposter Syndrome? 


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