Feeling like a FRAUD?

In my workshops over the past month or so, one of the areas of concern that comes up most frequently, is “What if I’m asked something I don’t know?” The word “fraud” is bandied about with increasing anxiety – what if they realise I don’t know it all, what if I look like a fraud? As the contagion of imposter syndrome spreads its constricting tentacles, perhaps it’s time to step back and look at who exactly you are there for?

  In “Peak Performance: Zen and the Sporting Zone,” Olympic Psychologist Felicity Heathcote shares her experience of helping out with graduate classes with Professor William Johnston. As she went in she was nervous, but her professor’s rebuke “You’re here to teach AND learn” makes her reflect on the “arrogance of the idea that to teach you have to know everything” and how this creates anxiety due to the fact you “concentrate on the impression you are making on others rather than the task at hand.”

  It might be arrogance or just naivete that makes you believe you should know it all, but there has to be an acceptance that you cannot possibly know everything. Prepare as best you can, then let go. If learning takes place out of a question you can’t answer – it’s still learning. If you have to look up information and get back to someone, there is growth – surely that’s a positive thing? That means you benefited, not just your audience. I think we need to give ourselves permission to be a human being. Interestingly, when I ask the people who are terrified of being "caught out" in the act of not knowing something, "How do you feel when you ask an expert a question that they can't answer?" they are very forgiving. And yet we don't cut ourselves the same slack. 

  When we remind ourselves that this is about an experience between you and your audience rather than an opportunity to be idolised, then we can let go of the urgency to be the omniscient authority. You are speaking or facilitating a workshop or conducting training because you have a certain amount of information. You might bring a fresh approach, a different perspective or even some brand new information. You are adding value through your preparation, your delivery and your desire to share and help others grow. This does not make you perfect or all-knowing. And it doesn’t have to.

  What is key in these situations is not whether you can answer everything or not, but rather, HOW you handle it. If you look flustered and upset, you make your audience uneasy. If you take it in your stride and either draw on resources present (Has anyone here come across this situation before or heard about this research?) or offer to research it, (I'll get back to you by email) you inspire confidence. And it never hurts to compliment the person asking the question – “That’s a very interesting question, I hadn’t thought of it like that” - this will leave them feeling good about themselves even if they didn’t learn what they wanted to.

  There is no shame in learning something new. There is nothing wrong with not being able to answer a question … UNLESS you were asked that question before and you STILL haven’t found it out!

  Here are some tips for handling a smooth Q & A session:

  • Prepare: think about what possible questions you can anticipate
  • Repeat the question for the audience (This also buys you a little bit of thinking time, and reduces the chance of a misunderstanding.) and make sure you look at everyone when you respond. Many speakers make the mistake of focusing only on the questioner.
  • Maintain a strong stance when answering – you are still “on stage.”
  • Make sure you end the session on a strong answer. Avoid saying “this is the last question” because if it is a difficult one you might end the session on a weak note.
  • Wrap the session up and then close your talk with a reiteration of your main message or key points and a final strong statement. You could even tell one last story to make sure you wrap it up on a real high note.

Remember that this is all part of your presentation. If you end with "That's all we have time for today, thanks very much" at the end of a Q & A then you're leaving your audience with a very bland ending. If you return to your talk, tell a story or at least repeat some key messages, you have a chance to cement the learning and finish on a very strong note. 

Wouldn't you rather leave your audience reflecting on something meaningful?

Enjoy your speaking experience, and enjoy being human. Not being omniscient doesn't make you a fraud.

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