Imposter With A Penknife

Who was it who said a consultant is someone who steals your watch just before they tell you the time?

‘Consultant’ is not a job title I ever really understood, but to hear some people talk, you could be mistaken for thinking consultants were the shadow lords of the workforce, moving among us in purposefully opaque and mysterious ways, ominous portents of incipient restructures and slick purveyors of flash-bang ideas guaranteed to rile incumbent staff whose own expertise and experience they marginalise and appropriate.

If you were to visit the very grown-up zone of my Linkedin profile, you’ll see me described currently as a ‘communications consultant’ for Amnesty International. Not long ago, I finished a sizeable chunk of work for the organisation and I’m working on another project for them right now.

‘Communications Consultant’ is one of those job titles that needs de-mystifying. As titles go, it manages to sounds both super-serious and a bit Mickey Mouse. Hand-on-heart, when I started in the role back in November 2019, I didn’t understand the job title either, I just hoped I’d be able to figure it out and make a decent fist of it.

In common with most non-sociopaths, imposter-syndrome is a low-level condition from which I suffer daily to a greater or lesser degree. On bad days, I’m expecting to be found out for the terrible old fraud that I am, judged wanting by all those really creative people out there living their best lives. On good days, I just second-guess myself in various sensible ways that encourage me to keep trying to make the best work I can.

When I first set foot in the door at Amnesty International as a freshly-minted ‘comms consultant’, my imposter syndrome was pretty much all the way through the roof. What the bloody hell was I doing here, I worried secretly, even as I smiled, shook hands and tried to remember everyone’s names. Only a few months before, I was course leading a three year degree in animation, striding about campus scruffily and waxing lyrically about The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Brothers Quay. Now, I was about to engage in a diagnostic review of one of Amnesty’s big fund-raising programmes, seeking to identify effective ways by which fundraisers might communicate to their donors as engagingly as possible. As I stared glassily at my new work-station, I’d never felt less-prepared or more convinced of my obvious and acute unsuitability for the work I was about to undertake…

That this blog post includes a bunch of rather swish-looking Amnesty-branded visuals tells you that, ultimately, this first freelance gig played out with a degree of success. Turns out all those largely enjoyable years spent with students trying to identify the most visual way of saying something were pretty useful after all – no, not just useful, essential. What also helps is surrounding yourself with other talented and trusted individuals. It’s one thing to discover you need a physics-defying multi-utensil Swiss Army Knife by which to encapsulate a complex programme of Human rights emergency reponse work, and quite another to bring such an impossible object into being. Fortunately, I was able to turn once more to my friend and long-term collaborator, Ethan Shilling, who worked as my technical director on Red & The Kingdom of Sound, Marcus & The Mystery of the Pudding Pans and Spectrogram. According to Ethan, after the rigors of bringing 1500 year old Roman pottery to life, manifesting an impossible penknife was actually a bit of a doddle. Clever git.

I’m a little comfier with the job title ‘consultant’ now. I see now that it is a job that requires a bit of imposter syndrome because of the evaluative ‘strangeness’ it opens up between you and the thing you’re looking at. You might say a consultant is truly the idiot in the room (I suspect many people would heartily agree!), but that is their value. They don’t know why things are done in a certain way, so they have to ask, and in the asking, they open up new enquiries and possibilities.

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