How I overcome Impostor Syndrome before a Presentation

Let me ask you a question

If I walked up to you right now and asked you to come to my company and share with us your insights into some topic, there's a good chance you'd likely decline.

  • You'd likely tell me that you were busy.
  • Or you'd tell me that you weren't prepared.
  • Or you'd tell me that you weren't qualified.

And maybe you're right. Maybe you're not prepared or qualified.

But let me ask you the question a different way.

What if I walked up to you and asked you to come to my company and share with us insights you'd recently discovered that you thought might help us.

Now, in reality, you might be more prepared. And you might even be qualified – since you're picking the topic.

But you know what? Many of you would still bow out. Still reject my offer.

You know how I know? Because you struggle with the confidence that lets you say yes.

You might say things like,

  • “I don't have a college degree.”
  • “I doubt I know more than your staff.”
  • “I'm sure someone else could do it better.”

You know how I know? Because I've said all those lines too. Even when I actually was qualified. Even when I was prepared.

I was nervous. Because of something called the Impostor Syndrome.

Can I tell you a secret?

I speak at business events, conferences and more. And it happens every time.

I've been speaking to audiences of 5 – 500 for more than twenty five years and it still freaks me out.

About 45 minutes before I go on stage, I start worrying.

  • If it's a technical talk, what if others in the audience are more technical?
  • If it's a business talk, what if others in the audience are smarter business folks?
  • If it's a motivational talk, what if others just fall asleep?

I still get nervous 45 minutes before I go on stage.

To overcome impostor syndrome, here's what I do

I have told you before that I start every talk with a story. Sometimes it's 2 minutes long. Sometimes it might take 10 minutes.

You know why?

Well there are a ton of great reasons because of what we know about people's brains and how to trigger their attention.

But that's not the main reason I do it – to trick your brain into paying attention.

No, the real reason I do it is because I step on stage nervous. And when you're nervous, it's really hard not to say things like:

  • “Hi. I'm not a very good presenter.”
  • “Hi there, I'm not really sure how this will help you.”
  • “Hi, let me see if I can get my slides to show up.”

We say silly things when we're getting ready to start. And when we do, we just make it harder for ourselves (because those brains start checking out).

When I get on stage, I'm nervous.

So to mitigate that, I start with a story.

Because a story is easy to practice 100 times.

Because a story transports my audience somewhere else – and captures their attention.

And because a story transports me somewhere else, where I stop thinking about my nervousness.

You see, deep down I know, once I get started, that I'll move thru my material and it will be what it will be. Sometimes I feel like it goes great. Sometimes I feel like it bombs. But the audience doesn't know what I was going to say, so it's hard for them to be as disappointed as I am.

Instead, most of the time, what people really remember – other than a few memorable quotes – is the initial story and how they were captivated.

I may not be a public speaking champion.

Actually, there's no “may not” about it. I'm not.

I may not have all the answers for every question I might imagine getting after my talk.

But what I know is that if I practice my initial story enough, there's a good chance I can get thru the first 90 seconds of my talk.

I can do that.

I can prepare to speak for 90 seconds at the start of my talk, telling a story I've practiced a ton.

And that will give me time to calm my nerves.

Can I tell you a story about a different 90 seconds?

Here's an example of the intro to an upcoming talk. In it I talk about the notion of working hard for 90 seconds. But I also highlight that many of us don't even do the work because we disqualify ourselves (Impostor Syndrome again).

Check it out and see if it makes sense. And more importantly, consider that I could be very nervous as I start this intro, but I don't have to feel like an impostor. Because it's a story. It's my telling of my version of the story. So I don't get myself caught up stressing about someone correcting me.

And as I share this story, I start to relax and from there can transition into the rest of my material.

Photo Credit: Mihai-Bogdan Lazar /