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Learn How to Push Past 'Impostor Syndrome' When it Strikes

“Looks like you guys are having a chilly week.”

“How was your weekend?”

“The Tigers are off to a good start this season.”

I like a little small talk at the beginning of a conference call. Human connections are important to me. But on a call with a copywriting client last week, I spent the first five minutes talking about the I-85 bridge collapse in Atlanta. It was interesting. Just not sure it deserved five minutes out of our day.

Still, I nurtured that conversation and squeezed every drop out of the topic. Because I dreaded moving on to the point of the call.

It’s not like I had done anything wrong. The client wasn’t upset. There was no indication things might be going off track. Yet I convinced myself I was about to be called out.

“Well, Mr. Terry. After reviewing your first draft, we’ve decided to terminate this project. Our marketing department has a combined 534 years of experience. And no one on the team has ever seen a more inferior chunk of donkey manure than what you sent us.”

First Day Jitters

For the record, no one has ever said anything like that to me. I have the experience and the chops to do great work. But somehow that doesn’t matter when the devious little voice inside your head gets louder. The voice that calls you the “F word.”


That stupid guy inside me was up to no good starting about an hour before the call. Taunting me. Filling me with doubt. It had been a week since I turned in the first draft, and now it was time to review the status and talk about next steps.

Looking back on it, I know what happened. This is my first project with the client. That’s what made it so scary.

Like the first day of school, the first day on the job, or a first date, there are bound to be jitters when you feel things out with a new client.

It helped a little that this was a warm relationship from the start. Because I go back six or seven years with my primary contact at “Company X.”

I was with Channel Intelligence at the time. We worked with a PR agency to elevate awareness of our new product lines. One of the media specialists from that firm moved on to Company X. He contacted me a couple of months ago because the company wants a fresh voice for a content marketing project.

Without giving away their identity, this company doesn’t make anything like yoga mats, craft beer, or patio sets. The brand sits in a space that is serious and, even my client will admit this, maybe a little stodgy.

But these folks are smart. They know they need to differentiate. So they asked for something “a little Yoda-like,” but also kind of fun and with some wit.

Which leads us back to this call about the first draft.

Things got interesting in the moments before I called in. That’s when the stupid little man started jamming inside my head with his annoying band of demons. All the amps were cranked up to 11.

A familiar collection of doubts streamed past:

• Is the tone all wrong?
• Did I go overboard with the lighthearted stuff?
• Do I understand the product well enough?
• Is my sense of humor too weird?
• Should I have listened to different music when I wrote it?
• Do they like long walks on the beach?
• How do they feel about Will Ferrell movies?
• Will I ever work again?

After milking the I-85 bridge topic for long enough, I forced the segue with, “But that’s not really what you want to talk about today.”

And the conversation turned to my first draft.

While I Have You on the Phone

That’s when the fog parted, and I saw the situation for what it was. I was scared because I had no baseline with this client. Sure they gave me some guidance during our discovery calls, and I had a sense of what they wanted. However, we were just reaching the point where the volleying begins.

Now we’ll bounce back and forth a few times to dial in the message. And then it will be way easier the next time we work together. It’s a progressive thing.

Of course. That’s always how it goes. This internal struggle is familiar territory. I’ve been there dozens of times before. I’m not a fraud at all. I’m good at this and my clients like working with me. Time to ignore the little man and move on past the dreaded impostor syndrome.

Over the years, you get better at recognizing the cycle. You run through it a little faster every time. But I hope it never goes away. That little bit of fear is what keeps you on your game.

So how did the call go?

It turns out Company X likes what I wrote. They do have some revisions, which I was happy to hear. I get worried when someone accepts the first draft and doesn’t request any changes. That means there’s something they aren’t telling me.

Then after my contact said some nice things about my work, he made his own segue to a different topic. And it wasn’t about the weather, my weekend, or the Tigers.

He asked if I would be interested in taking on another project for the company.

Well, whattaya know?

I hope the little man was paying attention during that part of the call.

John Terry