“Who am I to get up in front of a room and tell people how to do their jobs?”
“Nothing I’m doing is that special.”
“Why would someone want to hear what I have to say when they could listen to industry experts instead?”
I’ve heard so many variations of these kinds of thoughts from people I’ve talked to about submitting to speak at our conferences for the first time. And it’s not false modesty – they earnestly believe that they don’t have anything to share right now that an audience would find useful.
But here’s the thing: rarely are these thoughts accurate. So often the person saying these things has just told me about an amazing project they’re working on or a concept that they’re passionate about using in their work. From an outside perspective they absolutely have things to share that others would be excited to hear about. So why don’t they see it that way?
There’s one big contributor: impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome involves a disconnect between your successes and how you personally perceive them. You might be doing stellar work, but if you’re experiencing impostor syndrome you aren’t seeing that. Instead, you might feel like everything you’ve achieved is just due to luck (not your own skill), that nothing you’re doing is that special, or even that you’re a fraud and your true incompetence is bound to be exposed at any moment.
If you’ve ever felt that way, you’re not alone. Impostor syndrome is incredibly common and, oddly enough, the people it affects most are typically high achievers. Lots of people who are externally seen as successful actually experience these feelings at times throughout their life. It causes those affected incredible amounts of stress and can even cause them to opt out of opportunities for fear of being exposed as a failure.
And that brings us back to speaking at conferences. If you’ve felt that lack of confidence that you have something worth sharing, especially in spite of your external successes, then it might be impostor syndrome causing you to self-select out. And that’s a shame because these feelings of self-doubt cause our community to lose out on amazing voices and stories that can help us all. But fighting back against impostor syndrome isn’t as easy as just knowing what it is. If you think it may be holding you back from putting yourself forward to speak at a conference, here are a few ideas for how you can work through it and propose anyway.
Don’t let appearances fool you – lots of other speakers have felt this way too
I’ve talked with so many speakers who mentioned impostor syndrome as a reason they didn’t start trying to speak earlier in their career. There are also many speakers – myself included – who still have nagging feelings of self-doubt every so often, even after having spoken at events for years. But because it’s so internal, it’s not something you would know about unless they told you. While it doesn’t solve the issue, knowing that other people who you respect might also feel this way can at least help with not feeling alone in this.
Talk out your proposal ideas with someone you trust
If impostor syndrome is telling you all your ideas are rubbish, it can be helpful to get a second opinion. Find a colleague, mentor, manager, or industry friend you trust and get their thoughts on the ideas you’re considering proposing on – they might even have some ideas for what you can share that you hadn’t thought of. If you feel comfortable, also let them know you’re experiencing impostor syndrome. They might be a good support system for helping you push through it.
Use the resources available to help you craft a proposal you can be proud of
Being well prepared can quiet impostor syndrome down a bit. You might not feel confident you can write a strong proposal right now, but don’t forget there are lots of resources to help you out. Look at the program from previous years of the event you’re proposing for to get a sense of what kinds of topics make it on to the program and how session descriptions are written. Also, see if the event shares what topics they’re looking for, has examples of good proposals they can share, or runs any kind of programs for helping new speakers propose.
Reach out to experts
Speaking of resources that can help you feel prepared, don’t forget that people in our industry are pretty generous about sharing with others. Talk to other people who have spoken at the conference you’re proposing for to get their advice on crafting your own proposal. Also, consider reaching out to the conference organizers to discuss your ideas. At the Guild, we always make time to speak to people about their proposals, so definitely reach out if you want to discuss tips for writing your proposal or even just want reassurance that your topic ideas are a fit for the conference.
Be brave and put together a proposal even if you aren’t entirely confident
Even if you’re well prepared, impostor syndrome may still try to tell you that you aren’t ready to propose or that your idea isn’t that special. That’s when you need to do the (admittedly stressful) thing of submitting anyway. You aren’t always going to feel 100% about being ready and that’s okay. Just don’t let that hold you back from proposing.
Identify when you’re self-sabotaging
When you don’t feel confident, it’s easy to do things that reinforce those feelings. When it comes to proposals, self-sabotaging can involve things like not spending much time on the proposal, not having someone review your proposal before submitting it, and/or not working on it until last minute. These are all things that lead to weaker proposals that are less likely to be accepted… which reinforces your feelings that you weren’t ready in the first place. It’s a bad cycle.
If you know you have some of these habits when you don’t feel confident, give yourself structure to help prevent them. Book time in your calendar to work on your proposal early. When you finish a draft, set it down and don’t come back to it for at least a day so you can view it with fresh eyes. Ask a colleague in advance to review your proposal and promise to have it to them by a specific date. Even small amounts of structure like this can help you avoid self-sabotaging your proposal.
If you don’t succeed right away, ask for feedback
There’s a lot of competition to get onto conference programs. If your proposal isn’t accepted, don’t let that reinforce your negative feelings. Instead, use it instead as a way to do better next time. At the Guild we’re happy to give feedback on proposals that weren’t accepted and coach you on ways to improve for the next time you propose – all you have to do is ask.
Look for small opportunities that can help you feel ready
It’s also okay to start out smaller. If you truly feel you’re not ready to deliver a full conference session yet, look for other ways to get your feet wet instead. For instance, many Guild conferences have an event called DemoFest, which is like a science fair for L&D projects. It’s essentially just you demonstrating a project you created and answering questions attendees have about it, so it’s substantially lower stakes than a concurrent session and easier to prepare for too. You can also look for smaller speaking experiences at your organization or in your community. Finding success with shorter speaking opportunities can help build your confidence about being ready to take on a full session.
Encourage others who you see doing great work
Don’t forget that you can do a lot to help other people fight their own impostor syndrome. If you know someone who’s doing fantastic work, let them know you see what they’re doing and you think it’s worth sharing with others. I’ve had a number of people tell me it was someone else’s support that helped them feel ready to propose to speak for the first time. Look out for opportunities when you can provide that encouragement to someone else.
Those are just some of the ways you can combat the impostor syndrome that may be preventing you from proposing to speak at conferences. If you have any other tips that have worked for you, be sure to add them to the comments.