How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome as a Presenter

Posted by Belinda Huckle  |  On March 19, 2024  |  In Presentation Training, Tips & Advice

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Image of a male anxious and stressed but holding a mask of his own face who is smiling and relaxed to symbolise the emotions of being asked to do a last minute presentation.

If you are a regular presenter then you will know that standing up in front of an audience can be both exhilarating and at the same time, daunting or even intimidating. Being regarded as an effective communicator and presenter is essential for career advancement, but would you be surprised to know that occasionally, even the most accomplished and successful presenters suffer from an overwhelming sense of self-doubt and anxiety?

Think about your own life and career journey and ask yourself the following questions. Have you ever experienced the feeling that no matter how hard you work, regardless of success and positive feedback, that you are simply not good enough? That your high achievements are a fluke or down to luck, and in reality, you are a fraud? As a result, you feel constantly anxious, your sleep is affected and sometimes, even your physical health. Well, if you have you are certainly not alone and it may be, like many others, you are suffering from the psychological phenomenon known as Imposter Syndrome. In this blog we’ll explore imposter syndrome in more detail and provide some helpful tips in overcoming imposter syndrome when presenting.

 

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a term that was first devised back in the 70s to describe high achieving individuals suffering from relentless self-doubt and anxiety. For many years it was thought to affect mainly women; a study carried out by KMPG amongst 750 senior female executives found that 75% of them had experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their career, 81% felt that they put more pressure on themselves than men do, and 74% of those polled thought that their male colleagues did not experience feelings of self-doubt.

But we now know that this phenomenon, although not considered clinical, is experienced by both men and women, and increasingly amongst students.
People suffering from imposter syndrome are usually highly qualified and high achieving – but find they need to constantly seek validation from others, while downplaying personal success for fear that they are not as capable as their colleagues.

What has Imposter Syndrome got to do with presenting?

Presenting, by its nature, focusses all the attention in the room on one person, and can be a major trigger for anyone suffering from imposter syndrome or this ‘internal experience of intellectual phoniness’ (Clance and Imes, 1978).

What are the main causes of imposter syndrome?

Sad office worker been asked to do a presentation last minute

It is not completely understood what causes imposter syndrome, but it is thought to be a combination of social influences, including family and upbringing, personality traits, and experiences in the workplace.

Growing up in a high achieving family environment where only coming first or getting the highest education grades possible, or experiencing gender stereotyping or inequality in the workplace, or social situations where acceptance is based on achievement, or perhaps having a perfectionist personality trait, are all examples of how, where and when the seeds of imposter syndrome might be sown.

Specifically, within a business environment there are a number of circumstantial factors that can increase existing levels of anxiety or even trigger anxiety and the feeling of imposter syndrome in those who have never experienced it before.

  • Promotion. Being promoted is what most of us strive for; it’s a natural and desirable step towards furthering our careers. But it comes with expectations that it was deserved – you were good enough – and that can add pressure on us to justify it (or not!). It also, obviously, means that we are taking on more responsibility, that we will have to present to more senior colleagues (and that our once peers – who know us well – are perhaps now our direct reports).
  • Moving organisations. Moving to another company, and out of one’s comfort zone, is a common anxiety trigger. Increased expectations from your new colleagues may cause you to question your own ability.
  • Changing Roles. Moving away from a subject specific role into a more general management or strategic role propels you into an environment that is unfamiliar and for which you may feel unequipped.

Deliberately avoiding, or a reluctance to embrace any of these opportunities, to reduce anxiety, can have a lasting and negative impact on one’s career.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Note on yellow background with handwritten text saying stop doubting yourself

It is important to acknowledge that you may be suffering from imposter syndrome before taking steps to overcome it. Recognise and understand that what you are feeling is quite normal and very common.

You can start by making a list of your strengths and achievements, and focus on these successes.

Also, set realistic goals for yourself by chunking larger goals into manageable steps.

Talk to someone you trust, perhaps a mentor, to give you realistic feedback. And remember, imposter syndrome is your internal experience and usually not the reality of the situation; it’s your take on it. By thinking positively, taking time out for yourself, and acknowledging and celebrating your achievements it is possible to reset your mind over time. But if these tactics don’t work for you then explore what help is available to you in your workplace. Many organisations widely acknowledge this condition and have people on hand who can help.

Tips for presenters who experience imposter syndrome

Presenting to a group of people, however small or large, can be one of the most stressful aspects of the working environment. In effect you’re being put on a pedestal as an expert on the topic, and this can easily be a trigger for an attack of imposter syndrome and the accompanying nerves associated with feelings of thinking you are a fraud. Nerves can be a big symptom of imposter syndrome.

However, it’s worth remembering that most people get nervous before a presentation. It’s exceptionally common, and therefore normal, so try not to elevate these nerves into something more (like not feeling that you deserve this opportunity to give a presentation).

To help you overcome nerves (and feelings of imposter syndrome) when asked to give a presentation, we are going to take you through ways, and provide helpful tips, to alleviate pre-presenting nervousness and also anxieties felt during a presentation. Many of the topics have been covered in-depth in earlier blogs, so follow the links if you want to drill down and find out more about a specific subject.

Feeling under-prepared. This is probably the most common source of anxiety and unfortunately, there’s no shortcut here, it’s up to you to prepare, plan and execute your presentation professionally, just as you would with other aspects and responsibilities of your role.

When preparing your presentation, you need to focus on 3 key areas:

  • Firstly, who are you presenting to and what do they want to hear from you? Try to get inside their heads and analyse their needs and wants. The more you can tailor your content so that it’s meaningful and relevant for your listeners, the more interesting and persuasive your presentation will be.
  • Secondly, tell a story. Stories are a compelling way to structure your narrative and provide a more concise, engaging and memorable experience for your audience. SecondNature has a fantastic Presentation MapperTM framework that helps presenters do just that. It’s important to know where you want to end up before you start writing your presentation. Then you can identify 3 – 5 key takeaway points, or chapters if you like, to get you there. This roadmap will lead the audience to the final destination and, where relevant, the call to action.

Woman-practising-presenting

  • Finally, rehearse and practise – more than once – and aloud (and even record yourself – just set up a dummy meeting on Zoom or Teams) so you’re fully comfortable with your messaging, how it flows, and the time your presentation takes. Make sure that you know your opening and closing sentences off by heart. This way you won’t feel nervous about the start. If you are confident with your 3 – 5 key takeaway points it doesn’t matter that you use slightly different words to get there.

Settling your nerves before a presentation.

It’s worth exploring self-help techniques including visualisation and breathing exercises to see if they work for you. Many people significantly benefit from imagining themselves successfully delivering their presentations. This is a tool used by world-class athletes, musicians and actors: for more details follow the links above. Also, make sure you know the space you will be presenting in and avoid stimulants such as caffeine and sugar immediately beforehand.

 

Calming your nerves during a presentation.

It’s normal to feel nervous before a presentation but try to channel your nervous energy in a way that boosts your confidence. You’ll have around 7 seconds to create a first and lasting impression with the audience, so how you start is key. Here are 7 great tips to help you feel more confident:

  1. Walk into the room like you own it. Shoulders back, positive body language, head up. If you look confident it will help you to feel more confident.
  2. Start with an attention grab: an engaging image or startling fact to set the tone and get the audience on side right away.
  3. Don’t forget to smile. Smiling releases endorphins, it makes you feel good and it’s contagious. We’re not suggesting you smile all the time, but when relevant put on your happy face.
  4. Remember to make eye contact. Your eyes can convey many emotions and are a powerful non-verbal cue, so be mindful of what they are communicating. Making sincere and regular eye contact can make your audience feel special.
  5. Vary your tone of voice, pitch and pace to reflect the subject matter but try to keep it conversational. Imagine you are simply chatting to a colleague or friend. Vocal variety has also been shown to correlate with higher charisma and credibility ratings from listeners.
  6. Use gestures – sparingly – to emphasise a point. Check out our piece on what to do with your hands when presenting, for a list of dos and don’ts when it comes to using gestures as a complementary communication tool.
  7. Embrace movement. Think about moving to a different part of the room or stage as a way to punctuate your key points. You can use this technique as a natural pause and it’s a great opportunity to take a deep breath and re-set.

Professional business woman having a meeting with her colleagues giving a last minute presentation

And don’t forget to be your authentic self. It will be obvious to the audience if you try to come across as someone you are not, so let your personality shine through.
Feeling anxious and nervous is common in certain business situations and this nervous energy can be a good thing. But it’s important to acknowledge to yourself if you think your level of anxiety is far greater than usual and is affecting other areas of your life or causing physical symptoms. If this is the case then seek help, or self-help options and rest assured that you are not alone.
Learning to tackle your nerves when presenting is a terrific way to help you begin to address imposter syndrome!

 

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Belinda Huckle

Written By Belinda Huckle

Co-Founder & Managing Director

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Belinda is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of SecondNature International. With a determination to drive a paradigm shift in the delivery of presentation skills training both In-Person and Online, she is a strong advocate of a more personal and sustainable presentation skills training methodology.

Belinda believes that people don’t have to change who they are to be the presenter they want to be. So she developed a coaching approach that harnesses people’s unique personality to build their own authentic presentation style and personal brand.

She has helped to transform the presentation skills of people around the world in an A-Z of organisations including Amazon, BBC, Brother, BT, CocaCola, DHL, EE, ESRI, IpsosMORI, Heineken, MARS Inc., Moody’s, Moonpig, Nationwide, Pfizer, Publicis Groupe, Roche, Savills, Triumph and Walmart – to name just a few.

A total commitment to quality, service, your people and you.