Public speaking is scary. For the vast majority of the human race this is the case. Even the lucky few who can’t wait to get on stage and expose themselves to an audience of staring eyes, will agree that there is a certain thrill to it. Unsurprisingly, the fear of public speaking is rooted in our own insecurities. Some people feel uncomfortable in their own body when they’re on stage, others are afraid of rejection from the audience. An insecurity I come across often is the so-called Impostor Syndrome, the fear of being found out as a fraud. The feeling that you don’t actually know what you’re doing, you’ve just been lucky so far. Let this fear have the upper hand and you will never be the best speaker you can be.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Study shows that 70% of people are familiar with the feeling of being an impostor. A fraud who will be exposed any minute now.
Although it was first recorded with women and many articles about this phenomenon highlight high achieving women, it is certainly not just a female problem. Nobody is safe from this burden. People of whom we are all sure they are on top of the talent and skill list, such as Maya Angelou and John Steinbeck, also felt they would be “found out” sooner or later.
“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ “ – Maya Angelou
It may seem contradictory, but in many cases, sufferers also experience moments of overconfidence. I, myself, recognise both sides of the coin. Right after a successful workshop to a happy crowd I feel on top of the world. “God, do I know much about storytelling!” This feeling can completely change right before I have to tell a potential client what my service will cost them. “What do I really know about anything?”
“I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” – John Steinbeck
Dunning Kruger effect
A phenomenon closely related to the Impostor Syndrome is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Simply put the Dunning-Kruger effect says that incompetent people overestimate their abilities and competent people underestimate them. The main reason for this is that the more we know, the more we understand how much we don’t know. People who are just mastering simple additions and subtractions have no idea about the vast world of mathematics. They’re good at additions and subtractions so they figure they’re good at math. Also, when you’re just starting out learning something, you lack the knowledge that is necessary to recognise your own mistakes. You don’t see how bad you’re doing.
On the other hand, people with moderate to expert competence, have enough knowledge to see how much they haven’t mastered yet. Additionally, experts see that they do have an extensive knowledge but they assume everyone else does too.
“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” – Bertrand Russell
The effect on stage
These two phenomena can have a serious effect on you as a speaker. Or even on you as a conversationalist, especially when you’re trying to sell yourself and your business. I have worked with people who had an important sales pitch coming up and kept feeling like they were just boasting, rather than confidently telling people about the value they bring. Basically, they were playing themselves down and undermining their own story.
I have a standard introduction template that I teach my clients where I ask them to come up with an expertise. One of my clients, who owns two successful language schools, did not feel they had proven themselves enough to “claim” any teaching or language expertise.
Well, if you don’t believe it yourself, why should anyone else?
Where humility and vulnerability, when used right, can definitely work in your advantage as a speaker, insecurity and anxiety will only harm your story.
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” – C.S. Lewis
What to do about it
For me, the fact that these are recognised phenomena, already helped a lot. I just remind myself of that whenever I experience a fit of Impostor Syndrome.
Another this to know is that by practicing confident body language, we can not only fool our audience but also our own minds. With the right posture (shoulders back, head held high, feet apart) we can make ourselves believe that we are much more certain of ourselves than we actually are. “Fake it until you become it”, Amy Cuddy said in her Ted Talk.
My advice: embrace your impostordom when it comes to your confidence and fool yourself until you can finally really believe what everyone else has already seen.