Does this image ring any bells?
If so, welcome to the club. You, too, may be experiencing imposter syndrome, a key barrier to effective science communication.
And, if so, you’re in very good company.
On 1 October 1861 – two years after he published On the Origin of Species, and by now world-famous – Charles Darwin wrote in a letter to his friend, Charles Lyell:
But I am very poorly today + very stupid + hate everybody + everything. One lives only to make blunders. — I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything so farewell & in a sweet frame of mind, I am | Ever yours | C. Darwin.
Darwin displays three qualities that are regularly associated with imposter syndrome.
- A feeling of never being competent or knowledgeable enough
- Consistent critical self-talk
- An excessive focus on failures and mistakes
But his letter lacks one element essential to imposterism, which didn’t appear until 1978.
In that year, two psychologists – Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes – published a paper entitled The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women. The 150-plus women they studied all reported symptoms similar to Darwin’s, with one crucial addition.
According to Clance and Imes, they were particularly prone to “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness” and lived in perpetual fear that “some significant person will discover that they are indeed intellectual impostors.”
Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes
image via https://blog.10minuteschool.com/fighting-the-impostor-syndrome/
By 1982, a journalist in Vogue was referring to “the ‘impostor’ syndrome” – a phrase Clance and Imes disliked and never used. In 2011, Valerie Young published her bestseller, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women; since then, the topic has generated over 3,500 papers and a heap of self-help books.
(Incidentally, ‘impostor’ and ‘imposter’ seem to be more or less interchangeable spellings. If you’re interested, check out this article. I shall continue to favour ‘imposter’ in this post, except when I quote other writers.)
Whatever it is – phenomenon or syndrome – imposterism seems to be widespread. One much-repeated statistic, apparently originating in a 2007 article by John Gravois, suggests that 70% of us – men and women – experience imposter syndrome at some point. I took the Clance Test while researching this post. I scored 61 out of 100, indicating that I ‘frequently have Impostor feelings’. Which seems reasonable.
According to Sandeep Ravindram, imposterism “seems especially common in competitive and creative fields, and those where evaluations are subjective. […] The feeling of being a fraud is also common in fast-changing fields such as technology or medicine.”
What about academia? As May Merino points out in a revealing post for The Oxford Scientist, measures of success in the post-grad, post-doc arena are much more nuanced than in undergraduate education, where grades and test scores offer seemingly clearer metrics of achievement. “The shift to being surrounded by scientists at the top of their game can be a challenging one,” Merino continues, and can “even evoke feelings of not deserving a seat at their table.”
Imposterism also thrives on feelings of isolation. After all, as Merino says, “every researcher’s path is unique.” The problems you face on that path – failed experiments, ambiguous survey results – “will not,” she says, “exactly mirror those that others face.” When things go wrong, you may feel trapped, ashamed as much by the sense of failure as by the prospect of giving it all up.
All of these feelings might be amplified in a competitive, ‘publish or perish’ culture, dominated by grant applications, citation scores and high impact factors. Heaven forbid that your peers might engage in back-biting or bullying to promote their own research…
In a recent article, Kate Munley writes: "the prevalence of imposter syndrome may be grossly underestimated in academia, particularly because mental health is considered a social stigma in higher education."
Now put science communication into the mix.
Is it possible that, in a research-intensive environment, showing an interest in public understanding of science might mark you out as a not-entirely serious researcher? That getting involved in science outreach or science engagement makes you feel somehow unworthy to be a scientist?
Well: I’ll assume that you’re willing to counter such negative thoughts. After all, you’re planning to make a presentation. Good for you. So: what to do?
Let’s focus, just for now, on the presentation itself.
- Observe your feelings.
Whatever they are, those feelings are not you. They’ve appeared from somewhere else and have chosen to visit. Bid them welcome.
It’s not so easy to view these thoughts objectively if you’re nervous. So take a few moments to breathe deeply – 7-11 breathing is a great technique here – and then let these feelings in through the door.
Write a few calling cards for them: one card for each feeling. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Who do you think you are?” “They'll find you out." (Use the word ‘you’ – not ‘I’.) There they are, sitting on the desk in front of you. Don’t tear them up. Take a look. Say ‘hi’. And be kind to them.
- Ask yourself what you can learn.
These feelings are a sign that you’re challenging yourself to do something new. You’re stretching yourself, taking a risk, stepping outside your comfort zone. And that’s good. Who wants to do the same thing day in, day out, for the rest of their life?
Nerves are a sign that you care. That you want to do a good job in this presentation.
So, what can you learn from the experience? How can you use it to become a better speaker, to explain your ideas more clearly, to construct more effective arguments?
Set some clear goals for yourself. And then think about what you can do to achieve them.
- Focus on your audience.
Next, set some goals for the presentation itself.
I’ll guess that your focus so far has been almost entirely on your material. You’ve spent hours on the slides. You’ve tried your utmost to cover every base, every angle. You feel that you need to include everything. You don’t want to be found out, right?
Now change your focus. Think about your audience. Think about how you want to influence them. How do you want them to leave your presentation?
- What do you want them to think (or know, or have an opinion about)?
- What do you want them to feel?
- And what do you want them to do?
- At a conference, you might want your audience to know a lot but not necessarily do anything.
- If you’re presenting to policy-makers or government officials, you might want them to take specific actions.
- If you’re talking to young people at a science festival, influencing their feelings might come to the fore.
Now you need to decide how to achieve these goals. So:
- Find the narrative.
Your goals for the presentation describe where you want your audience to be at the end of the presentation.
Now think about where they are at the start.
What do they already know and feel? If you’re not sure, then make a reasonable guess: what are they likely to be thinking about and feeling in relation to this topic?
Your presentation needs to take them on a journey from where they are to where you want them to be. That journey is the narrative of the presentation.
There are lots of ways of creating this narrative. You might want to tell a story. But stories are only one kind of narrative. Two narrative structures that I find consistently helpful are the And, But, Therefore structure, and something called Monroe’s Motivated Sequence.
By this point, you’ll probably realise that you need to reorganise your material. Go ahead.
- Practise and get detailed feedback.
Rehearse. In real time. With a real audience, if you can possibly do so.
Choose someone whose opinion your trust: preferably not a close colleague or someone who’s familiar with your research. Ask for specific, detailed feedback. What did they understand? Where did they get lost? How are you coming across?
Use this feedback to identify your strengths as a presenter. Build on those skills. Don’t worry about eliminating your faults. They’re probably not faults, anyway.
It is possible that impostor syndrome is not actually a Thing. Or rather, it could be as much the result of external factors as of mental activity. Increasingly, researchers are looking for the roots of this experience in social structures, systemic inequalities and what historian Christy Pichichero has called discriminatory gaslighting. All of which deserves another blog post.
Meanwhile, one final thought. It’s not mine; it comes from Professor Jessica Collett.
“Impostorism,” she writes, “is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors.”
So, if you do feel assailed by imposter syndrome, it’s probably because you are extremely knowledgeable and competent. If you were a real imposter, you wouldn’t feel like one.
If you want to read more about preparing a great science presentation, check out these three posts on my blog.