Imposter Syndrome and Public Speaking

By Alyson Connolly

The term impostor syndrome was coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. They used it to describe people who were high achievers and well regarded in their field but who nevertheless felt that they didn’t deserve the accolades bestowed upon them. At first it was thought that only women were afflicted by this condition, but they soon found that men too suffered. In their research, Clance and Imes noted that some women with PhDs didn’t feel competent enough to hold their job as a professor in a university.

If this is your feeling — if you’ve diagnosed yourself as an “impostor” — it’s time to figure out how you got there, what you can do to address the problem, and how to go about it.

How to diagnose yourself

Why do you think you feel like an impostor? In what ways do you feel this? What happens to you when you feel like an impostor? Is it all mental — or are there physical symptoms? Think about when your feeling of being an impostor presents itself. Does it only happen when public speaking? Does just thinking about speaking publicly bring it on, or does it require really standing in front of an audience? Answering questions like these will be crucial to regaining your confidence.

It took the client I mentioned in the introduction a few sessions before she could answer these questions. She eventually was able to tell me exactly where she needed help. She said she felt she “didn’t belong,” and that she had been “hired by fluke,” and one day she was going to “make a big mistake” and her “cover would be blown.” That told me that her impostor syndrome wasn’t just about public speaking.

Once you’ve really thought about how this problem manifests itself, you have to find a way to fix it, and a good way to start is to write down your goals. With a piece of paper and a pen, start listing some things you want to accomplish. They can be small steps. Do you have a presentation you have to make at your company’s Christmas party? Asked to speak at your daughter’s wedding? Maybe your goals aren’t that formal. Maybe you feel like an impostor when simply trying to speak with a larger group of friends. No matter the circumstance, it’s good to know where your problem lies and where you want to improve.

Critique the criticism

Some of the most talented people are that way because they continue to improve, even if it seems like they don’t need to. My husband is a career radio broadcaster in my city. He has a great speaking voice. He really is a natural (I’d like to take the credit, but alas, I cannot). Yet whenever he has an opportunity to take a course on improving his vocal technique, his presentation skills, or his on-air conversational style, he jumps at the chance. Why bother? He’s already at the top of his game, it seems. His answer is simple: He just wants to be better.

It’s good to feel like you always need to improve. But taken too far, that feeling can lead to impostor syndrome. A healthy acknowledgment that there’s always room to improve has become a belief that you’re hopelessly out of your depth when it comes to almost everything.

It could be that you take criticism too much to heart. Criticism isn’t always constructive, after all. Sometimes it’s deliberately destructive. And for people with a level of impostor syndrome, or who simply lack confidence in a lot of they do, this kind of criticism can really work against them and undermine what confidence they do have. Criticism may validate fears that you already have — maybe somewhere, deep inside, you were waiting for someone else to just say it.

People with confidence can evaluate and use criticism effectively. Often, even criticism that seems unhelpful can be used productively. People may say something that could help you, even if they say it a stupid way. Sometimes, even with malicious criticism, a confident person has the faculties to take it and figure out if it applies to them — or discard it altogether.

Public speaking workshops can generate a great deal of criticism, ideas, suggestions, and cautions to keep track of. Maybe you spend one hour every few weeks with a teacher, but in that time the instructor may offer so much criticism and helpful tips it makes your head spin. I admit that I’ve done this, trying to give my clients their money’s worth, but they end up feeling they have so much wrong with them they don’t know where to start.

Some people who receive a lot of criticism have the ability to compartmentalize it all. This is a good mindset to have. They don’t let their egos get in the way of processing and acting on information.

Recognize progress

You should give yourself credit where credit is due. It’s difficult to see individuals come so far only to not themselves recognize that they have done so and remain discouraged. But this is a major facet of impostor syndrome — the inability to sort out your success and believe that you’re a failure despite it.

I’ve noticed in my work that progress can be difficult to judge by yourself, and you may not always have a professional around to point out things you have truly gotten better at.

Take a video of yourself the very first time you say a speech out loud. You don’t have to dissect it then if you don’t want to, but later, if you’re ever feeling down about your progress, video yourself again. Then watch both videos. In the second video, can you point out where you have improved? I bet you have — admit it! This technique will give you a good benchmark and can also show where you need to focus to become successful.

Why It Happens

To overcome impostor syndrome, it’s important to understand why it happens. It’s also important to understand that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. None of us is born an “impostor.” Rather, impostor syndrome is a reaction to some stimuli. You may have a sibling who has been designated the “intelligent” member of the family, while you’re told you have “other” gifts. Maybe you’re the caring one or the social butterfly of the family. Even if you work hard and sometimes get even better marks in school than your “bright” sibling, your achievements somehow remain unnoticed. That can create doubt in yourself.

Or maybe you were put on a pedestal the day you were born and never removed. You are perfect in every way, your looks, intelligence, and so forth. No one has ever played the tambourine better than you. But once you venture out into the big, bad world out there, you find out that there are actually other people who are smarter, more talented, and better-looking than you. Again, this can plant the seeds of self-doubt.

One of the telltale signs of impostor syndrome is the inability to receive a compliment, because you never received them as a kid (or received too many!). How many times have you brushed off a nicety and said something like, “Thank my tailor,” or, “I was just following our company mission statement”? Guess what, folks — a lot of the time, the complimenter may not even mean the compliment in the first place. But the “impostor” behaves in a counterintuitive way here. Instead of analyzing whether someone giving a compliment really meant it or was just being polite, people tend to believe the complimenter, but can’t for the life of them attribute that chosen suit or powerful presentation to themselves.

Feel a failure onstage and off

This section focuses on understanding the feeling of impostor syndrome onstage, but it’s important to note that often the feeling doesn’t discriminate between public speaking and the regular world. Many people feel like “impostors” both onstage and off — the feeling is only exacerbated by shining lights and a microphone.

Here are some typical reasons why people have this feeling:

  • They feel unworthy: Remember in Wayne’s World when Wayne and Garth meet Alice Cooper and get down on their knees, chanting, “We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy”? That’s not much of an exaggeration of how a lot of people feel inside when they have impostor syndrome. Some people put a position in life or a certain success on a such a high pedestal that when they finally achieve it, they feel they there must have been some kind of mistake for them to actually get to that point. There they are, the same old person who just recently had not achieved that particular goal. Must be a fluke, right? Same goes with Wayne and Garth. They feel they’re unworthy of speaking to a rock star — but who are the stars of the movie?
  • They feel they don’t deserve it: They’ve been put down and told indirectly or directly that they’ll never succeed. Or they’ve been pumped up so much that when they find out that they won’t get that A in algebra, they doubt themselves and the people who lied. All of these things can build up to a person’s insecurities.
  • They feel they have no place to go from here: This may be a terrifying feeling for some and a comfort to others. Beware that this feeling is pervasive throughout every level of success. There are billionaires who feel this way, professional athletes, Oscar-winning actors. Someone at any level of any profession may have this feeling. I don’t mean to terrify or comfort you with this fact; it’s just a reminder that this afflicts anyone at every level — and that you can’t success your way out of it.

Luck into success

There’s this little lie that I’ve heard over and over from people I deal with who have impostor syndrome: The success they’ve had is all because of luck. There they are, in their executive lounge wearing a handmade suit, telling me it’s all the result of some lucky divine poker hand. Now that they have to actually present something, anything that has supported them to this point will come crashing down. Their luck has run out.

I know exactly how that feels. My first bit of success was college. I got into one of the most reputable theater schools that you can apply for. And it was not an easy process: I had to present two monologues, sing, dance, do improv, and go through an interview over the course of two sessions. Unbelievably, I got the acceptance letter that I had made it. I was in. Out of hundreds of applicants, just 16 of us had been chosen. But while my family was congratulating me, dread started creeping in. It must be a mistake! How long would I really last at that school, among the other, actually deserving candidates?

The truth is, every success, no matter how hard had it is to achieve, contains a bit of luck. That’s true for other people as well. It doesn’t just apply to you.

Be Yourself

Hopefully you’ve come to understand a bit about impostor syndrome, and that you’re not actually an impostor. You may have pinpointed why you feel this way. How do you lose that feeling?

One of the go-to platitudes parents like to trot out when their child enters that socially awkward phase before high school is: Just be yourself. Parents love their kids so much that they can see past the pimples and the lanky, cumbersome limbs — but the kids think being themselves is the problem. They think everything about them is wrong, not the world.

Let’s co-opt that platitude and use it in a way your parents probably didn’t intend. Go through the exercises here that focus on what exactly it means to be yourself. And no, it doesn’t necessarily mean flaunt your oddities. Mom’s heart was in the right place, but to be yourself in this situation is to look inside and see what is truly working — then apply it to the stage.

A lot of traits can be gleaned by practicing some self-deprecating humor. Laughing at aspects of yourself that you may not necessarily like can be a great way to disarm their power. How do you practice humor? Well, the same way you rehearse any other aspect of your speech.

One thing you can do is use humor when things go awry. Have you ever seen a performance where there was a terrible screwup? Maybe you were at a play and an actor forgot his words. Or you were watching a keynote speech and the poor speaker’s PowerPoint went down. Such moments seem so crushing that surely they make or break these performances. But what actually happened? Did the mistake really ruin everything, or did the performer recover nicely and maybe use humor to get past it?

Here’s a valuable tip: People don’t really want you to fail, and it’s not even for your sake that they don’t want you to. It’s uncomfortable for an audience when somebody bombs. Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you.” Even if you don’t feel like you deserve to be up there, you actually do. And even if things go badly, nobody wants a mistake like that to ruin the day. Being able to laugh about it in the moment will save your performance.