Impostor Syndrome: Why It Can Hurt Your Presentation

Posted on July 2, 2015 in Creating Rapport, Public Speaking, Tips & Tricks by Slideshop

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A seminar organizer approaches and asks you to give a talk about leadership. You’ve been a manager at a prestigious tech company for five years, and have received accolades for your outstanding performance. Your know-how, personable character and wisdom have earned you considerable respect in the industry. In a nutshell, you’re highly qualified as a guest speaker.

Yet you decline the invitation.

You doubt your own expertise. Despite your accomplishments and well-deserved reputation, you lack confidence in your knowledge and skills. Regardless of the praise and assurances you’ve received, you find it hard to accept and embrace your own very real success. Your secret fear is that everyone will discover your commendable performance and achievements have been shams.

Impostor Syndrome

This deep feeling of inadequacy has been labelled “impostor syndrome.” It usually stems from incorrect self-assessment. The term first appeared in an article by Suzanne Imes and Pauline Clance, psychological researchers who noticed many high-achieving women tended to underestimate and undervalue their own achievements.

In the video above, Vanessa Van Edwards, lead investigator of the human research lab at, lists the questions you should ask yourself to determine if you struggle with this syndrome:

  • Do you ever feel you don’t deserve your achievements?
  • Do you ever worry that people will find out you are secretly unworthy?
  • Have you ever dismissed a success as just being the result of luck or accidental good timing?
  • Do you feel you have somehow tricked others into thinking you’re more successful than you actually are?
  • Do you think others overvalue your success?

Impostor Syndrome and Public Speaking

Evidence indicates impostor syndrome is not a mental disorder, but rather a response to a stimulus such as being required or asked to speak in public. When you talk to an audience, people evaluate your message, credibility and presentation skills. Even thinking about going through such an experience can be very intimidating to someone who tends to experience this impostor syndrome. It generates fears of being ridiculed, frowned upon, or ignored, and confidence suffers badly. However, since impostor syndrome is a mental and emotional reaction, it is possible to gain control of the phenomenon and reduce or eliminate it. Following are three steps to help you, if you experience impostor syndrome to any degree:

1. Give Yourself a Healthy Dose of Appreciation


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Being invited to speak to others, to inform or inspire them, is an honor and a privilege reserved for those who have proven their worth. If fear or doubt begin to cloud your thoughts when so invited, take a piece of paper and write down everything you have accomplished in relation to your topic. Now you’ve got a list, in black and white, of reasons why you’ve got valuable stories, tips, and insight to share. Congratulate yourself for those accomplishments; you’ve earned the self-recognition. Now prepare and practice your presentation. You’ll do well, and your audience will be glad they had the opportunity to hear you.

2. Be Authentic

Some audience members may be even more knowledgeable and experienced than you in the area of your talk, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a valuable resource. Your personal journey is different from anyone else’s. You’ve faced different challenges and struggles, taken different risks, suffered different setbacks, performed different feats, enjoyed different triumphs and gained different insights. All that adds up to significant value for even a seasoned veteran in your field. Focus on what you’ve been through, come up with clever and impactful ways to connect with your audience and relay your major messages. Give it your personal, genuine touch. Those lucky enough to be present will thank you.

3. Don’t Apologize

Some nervous speakers open their speech or presentation with lines like these:

  • “I’m sorry, but I’m not really an expert in…”
  • “I’m afraid I don’t have much experience at public speaking…”
  • “I’m not really such a great presenter…”

Sure, admitting a flaw (real or imagined) prevents anyone from thinking you’re an impostor, but opening with this sort of apologetic approach can be quite off-putting for your audience, and needlessly, unjustly damage your very valid credibility. It’s a fine idea to open in a way that will relieve tension and establish rapport, but do it with an anecdote, a joke, or an easily relatable scenario – something that will engage your audience and quiet your own apprehensions.

Studies have found that some 70% of people who’ve engaged in public speaking have experienced the phenomenon of impostor syndrome at one time or another. If you’re part of that population, how did you overcome it? Your experiences and tips are welcome – please take a moment to share them in the comment section below.

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