Why does everyone think they know best?

Almost 13 years ago to the day, my friend’s career in communications started with a one-day course at the CIPR on St James’s Square. The one thing he always remembers is the definition of consumer PR given by one of the delegates: it’s about turning wants into needs through the power of storytelling.

For the purpose of this post, let’s agree not to debate that definition. Instead, let’s use it as a clue to an everlasting mystery for those in the profession: why does everyone think they know best?

Photo by shevvers/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by shevvers/iStock / Getty Images

You won’t find many people outside the legal profession giving their opinion on obscure acts of parliament and our friends in finance are not troubled by the outsider’s view on accounting standards. However, when it comes to communications, nobody holds back.

It’s a frustrating reality that we all live with but I don’t think the cause is a lack of professional respect, at least not all of the time. I also don’t think it’s a conscious decision on the part of our colleagues to condescend with an opinion on something they have never done, studied or considered.

To go back to our working definition, I think the temptation for everyone to offer their opinion down to the fact that we are storytellers. And storytelling is not the preserve of the communicator.

I heard a story once (probably apocryphal) that there is a tribe in Africa whose word for human being translates literally to mean ‘featherless storyteller’.  If you are reading this I can safely make two assumptions. Firstly, that you are indeed featherless. Secondly, that you can tell stories.

When we are growing up, we are told stories that help us to understand the world around us, show us how to make friends and inspire us to consider what we might want to become. 

The fact is, most of these stories are written down and read to us. Some are passed down through the generations. Very few are created.

Photo by Kontrec/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Kontrec/iStock / Getty Images

Creating a story is not easy. The same friend, still in the profession, had his four-year-old niece to stay recently. He knew there were always three stories at bedtime. He was picking up the third book when she informed him that, “Story number three, you have to make up for me.”

Put on the spot, this felt like a new kind of pressure, an unexpected call on his professional skills.  A couple of moments to gather his thoughts and by the time the handsome prince had made it past the dragon and into the enchanted woods, she was fast asleep. 

In this, I think we have the answer to our question. Yes, all of us have the ability to tell stories. However, the professional contribution that we make is to create a story. Not just any story. We tell the right story, at the right time for right audience.

So, perhaps we shouldn’t be frustrated with the assumption from colleagues that they know best? After all, that assumption comes from a very natural and human instinct that we all have to tell stories.

Instead we need to be confident in explaining the difference between telling a story and creating the right story.