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5 steps for beating impostor syndrome as a public speaker

Feeling like a fraud compounds those other normal speaking jitters. But with practice, you can develop a speaking style that’s authentically your own.

5 steps for beating impostor syndrome as a public speaker
[Photo: Wavebreakmedia/iStock]

You’re delivering a presentation, and the one thing going through your mind, over and over, is the feeling that you don’t belong up there. It’s hard to focus on your talking points; you’re too preoccupied by the fear that you don’t really know what you’re talking about, and once the audience asks you a question, they’ll all see how full of it you are.

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Impostor syndrome comes in many forms, and one of them is the thing that saps all your confidence the moment it’s your turn to step up and address a crowd. In general, impostor syndrome is the anxious feeling that, despite all your accomplishments, you aren’t actually very competent and everyone’s about to find out. And when it hits during a presentation, all the normal public-speaking jitters can get a whole lot worse.

Fortunately, however, there are a few things you can do to shake off impostor syndrome just before it threatens to derail your talk. Here’s how.


Related: 5 types of impostor syndrome and how to vanquish each of them


Step 1: Acknowledge the feeling

Being honest with yourself is a critical first step. Recognize that impostor syndrome is not rare and is something that you can and will get past. If you get hit by feelings of inadequacy while you’re preparing for a presentation, write them down. Recording the specific instance of a fearful thought or an imagined worst-case scenario can help you visualize it and think about about overcoming it.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore those feelings or just say to yourself, “Get over it!” Sidestepping negative thoughts and emotions can make them even more challenging to handle.

Step 2: Ask yourself what you can learn

If you had a chance to jot down some of your impostor syndrome-based speaking anxieties, review them and ask yourself how they might lead you toward learning something new. Once you give some substance to an ill-formed terror, it becomes a little easier to imagine how you might change or confront it.

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But if your impostor syndrome arrives just moments before you step out onstage, you can take the same approach: Ask yourself how you can use this presentation to become a better, more confident speaker. In other words, use those impostor feelings as a signal–and an opportunity–to grow, improving the very parts of your presentation that you feel most insecure about.


Related: Want to be a more confident speaker? Tell a story.


Step 3: Get some feedback

You can’t fight impostor syndrome effectively all on your own; You’ll need some help from others. Even if you feel like you totally bomb your talk, make a point afterwards to talk with family, friends, and colleagues you trust about how anxious and even fraudulent you felt before and during your presentation. Talking it out feels good, and you might be surprised by how many of your peers have had the same anxieties. If you don’t have these relationships yet at work, it’s a great chance to build them.

You’ll also get positive reinforcement. Impostor syndrome doesn’t isn’t about actually being an inadequate or unskilled as a public speaker, it’s about feeling like you are. By talking through it, you’ll hear others recount all the times you’ve given great presentations or proved yourself a competent communicator.

Step 4: Build a practice group for reinforcement

Talking about impostor syndrome a few times will help, but to really make an impact, you need regularly reinforced discussions and feedback. Join or create an informal group of like-minded people who’ll support each other–folks who are mutually interested in becoming more confident speakers.

Use that network to present to each other, share feedback, and offer support. In many workplaces, good, actionable feedback is rare, particularly when it comes to developing public-speaking skills. Yet we need this constructive criticism (and positive reinforcement) not just to improve as speakers, but also to banish the impostor syndrome that holds many of us back from getting better.

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Related: These 7 common speaking habits undercut your credibility


Step 5: Develop a personal style that feels authentic

The more feedback you gather, the more you’ll learn about your strengths as a presenter, too, not just your shortcomings. There’s always some facet of speaking that each of us excels at, no matter how much we may struggle with others. Maybe you’re good at speaking conversationally, at presenting visually, at communicating data, or as a storyteller. Use your practice group to discover your unique personal style, then build on those strengths. The best antidote to impostor syndrome–that feeling of inauthenticity–is a solid foundation of authenticity that shows through as your personal speaking style, no matter what.

These five steps aren’t easy, but they’re a surefire route to overcoming those negative thoughts that too often prove self-fulfilling up there on stage. Start now by facing them head-on as you prepare for your next presentation, and gradually you’ll feel like less of an impostor and being seeing yourself as the star that others perceive you to be.

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About the author

Darren Menabney lives in Tokyo, where he leads global employee engagement at Ricoh and teaches MBA students at GLOBIS University. Follow him on Twitter at @darmenab.

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