How to Communicate In a Case Interview

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Last Updated on February 15, 2024

Initially, most candidates I coach for McKinsey, BCG, Bain, and other firms struggle with communicating effectively during the case interview. In fact, their communication issues hamper their performance. They could be brilliant in terms of their analytics and insights generation yet lack the effective tools to bring their points across.

In this article, I want to highlight

  • How to communicate like a consultant and make a strong impression on the interviewer
  • The most common communication mistakes that candidates make during the case interview
  • Resources that you can use to improve your communication

Key Principles of Effective Communication

In the high-stakes environment of consulting case interviews, effective communication stands as a cornerstone of success. It’s not merely about what you say but how you say it that makes the difference between a memorable candidate and one who loses the attention of the interviewer and fades into the background.

Here, we delve into the key principles that underpin effective communication, principles that will not only elevate your performance in case interviews but also enhance your interpersonal skills in the consulting job and beyond.

Clarity Above All: The essence of effective communication in consulting lies in clarity. Your ability to distill complex ideas into clear, concise statements is invaluable. Before you speak, ask yourself, “Is this the simplest way to express my idea?” Remember, in consulting interviews, simplicity is sophistication.

Brevity is Your Ally: Time is a precious commodity in any case interview. Brevity ensures that your key messages are not lost in a sea of words. This doesn’t mean you should omit critical details; rather, it’s about being judicious in your choice of words, ensuring each one serves a purpose.

Structured Thinking: A hallmark of a seasoned consultant’s communication style is structured thinking. This means organizing your thoughts in a logical flow before they’re spoken. Adopting a top-down communication approach, where you present your conclusion first followed by supporting arguments, exemplifies this principle in action.

Adaptability: While structure is critical, so is adaptability. Reading the room and adjusting your communication style to suit the audience or situation is a skill that distinguishes good consultants from great ones. Whether it’s simplifying a concept for a broader audience or diving deep into details with a subject matter expert, flexibility is key.

Engagement: Effective communication is not a monologue; it’s a dialogue. Engage with your interviewer by asking clarifying questions, seeking feedback, and showing genuine interest in the discussion. This interactive approach not only demonstrates your communication prowess but also your ability to connect on a personal level.

Listening: Often overlooked, listening is a critical component of effective communication. Active listening allows you to grasp the nuances of the case, tailor your responses more effectively, and demonstrate your attentiveness and respect for the interviewer’s perspective.

The goal is not just to convey information but to do so in a way that is impactful, engaging, and, above all, memorable.

Effective Communication in Consulting Interviews

When thinking of how to communicate in a case interview, broadly speaking, there are two core communication issues, the failure to employ top-down communication and the mistake of not focusing on the key message.

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Communication

Why do so many people struggle with effective communication for consulting interviews?

Simply because they do not know about or are not used to top-down communication. The simple truth is that it is not natural. Before starting to prepare for consulting interviews to kick off their consulting careers, most people have never heard of top-down communication.

We are taught from elementary school to structure our communication bottom-up. When you want to make a point, you bring arguments in favor of your statement and then make the statement.

However, this is not how effective communication works in the business world. In times of decreasing attention spans of CEOs and ever-increasing scheduling conflicts and full agendas, as a consultant, you want to make sure to bring your point across most effectively and concisely.

The solution to this problem is to turn your communication upside-down by mastering top-down communication in consulting.

First, provide your statement, then come up with 2-3 supporting arguments. Communication in case interviews and consulting work, in general, is always top-down, meaning you prioritize your key message first, and then present supporting arguments for it.

To make it more tangible. If you are at an event and want to go home, you would communicate it the following way:

Bottom-up: It’s getting cold and most people have left. Let’s leave!

Top-down: Let’s leave! First, it’s getting cold, second, most people have left already.

The latter is the type of communication you need to adopt for a case interview and when discussing with senior managers in a company. It is more effective since you put your core message first and it will be remembered more easily. Also, it provides a better basis for discussion.

Very often, when dealing with junior or middle management or other staff of the client, you would engage in bottom-up communication to first introduce them to your work, and your needs, and then ask a specific request.

However, this is just a side note since it is not relevant to the case interviews.

Practice content and communication with our dedicated preparation packages.

Focusing on the Key Message

The second issue that many interviewees face is that their communication is not concise enough. They either

  • Use more words and sentences to bring their points across
  • Keep on talking once they have made their point

What is the solution for this?

When improving communication skills for consulting interviews, keep in mind that everything you say needs to add value to your point or the conversation. Try to use the least possible words and sentences to make a point.

Once you have brought your points across, stop and move on and employ the tips for concise communication in consulting cases.

Practice this by recording your answers and seeing how many filler sentences, phrases, and words you incorporated. Also, pay close attention to ‘mmms’, other fillers, and stalling.

Another reason why candidates ramble on is that they are not confident in their answers. I have noticed in many cases that when candidates are nervous or not confident in their abilities they start to ramble on and

  • repeat points several times using different words until stopped by the interviewer
  • create endless sentences of different trains of thought, linking them together with ‘and’

Pay close attention to this as well.

To stick with our example from above:

Lengthy: Let’s leave. I am cold and I don’t want to stay anymore. Also, I want to go since most people have left already, probably because it got too cold for them too.

To the point: Let’s leave! First, it’s getting cold, second, most people have left already.

Strategies for Concise and Impactful Communication

Let’s look at some concrete examples, best practices, and phrases for the case interview that can help you guide your communication. I have structured it along the 4 most common case question types you will encounter in case interviews with McKinsey, BCG, and Bain:

  1. Framework, structure, and idea generation/brainstorming
  2. Exhibit and interpretation
  3. Case math
  4. Recommendation

To guide your thinking and communication, there are just two simple habits you need to adopt:

  1. Signposting: Announce all of your ideas before guiding the interviewer through them in more depth
  2. Numbering: Number every point to create clarity on the breadth and depth of your argumentation

Whatever you say, focus on answering the key question and your key message first, then follow up with supporting arguments.

Use the phrases below for your case interview communication:

SectionCase Interview Communication Template
Case FrameworkI want to structure my approach into 3 parts, the first part is <>, the second part is <>, and the third part is <>. Now let’s look at the first bucket. In the first bucket, I came up with 4 ideas, the first idea is <>. <Proceed to explain your idea>. The second idea is <___>,…
Exhibit InterpretationI see 4 key insights on this chart. The first is <>, the second is <>,…
Case MathI want to approach this calculation in 3 steps. The first step is <>, the second step is <>,…
RecommendationThe client should do <recommendation> for 2 reasons. First <reason 1>, second <reason 2>.

Now these are just a few examples, however, they are powerful because they will ensure that your answers are

  • top-down
  • to the point

Practical Resources to Enhance Your Communication Skills

Incorporate communication practice into your case interview preparation for top consulting firms.

If your sole focus now is to become a top consulting communicator, I would look into resources that revolve around the type of communication that is needed for case interviews and the daily life on the job and less on more general English language classes.

In practice, this means:

  • Read business journals for the lingo. Your best bets are The Economist, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal. If your interviews are in a different language, look for local business publications and study them.
  • Read top-quality research papers in the business field, since they have been rewritten 50 times with the goal in mind to transport clarity of thought and preciseness with the least possible word count.
  • Learn specific phrases for the different parts of the case and keywords, either through personal coaching or by watching YouTube videos of mock consulting interviews (large variation in quality here though). The best resource to witness real top-down communication is our McKinsey Interview Academy, where we demonstrate not only the content that matters in a case interview but also the communication and contrast between bad, good, and excellent candidates. In the end, certain elements of the communication will always be the same across all cases (e.g., how to summarize, formulate a hypothesis, etc.)
  • Practice structure, chart, and math drills out loud by yourself to internalize the correct habits. Pay attention to the time you take to convey an idea or a thought. Every sentence should add value to the conversation
  • Lastly, read our summary of the Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto, a former McKinsey consultant, which focuses especially on the top-down communication employed by consultants

Reach out if you need help with learning to communicate most effectively. As a former Mck consultant and Ph.D. researcher, communication is a core pillar of my coaching.

We have specialized in placing people from all walks of life with different backgrounds into top consulting firms both as generalist hires as well as specialized hires and experts. As former McKinsey consultants and interview experts, we focus on teaching the best habits and strategies to ace every case interview.

We can help you by

Reach out to us if you have any questions! We are happy to help and offer a tailored program to help you break into consulting.

To improve your skills in all areas of the interview, check out some of our targeted offers below.

Final Thoughts: Overcoming Communication Challenges

As we conclude our exploration into the art of communication within the context of consulting case interviews, it’s clear that mastering this skill is not just about acing your interview—it’s about setting the stage for a thriving career in consulting. The journey to becoming an effective communicator is ongoing, marked by continuous learning, practice, and refinement. Here are some final thoughts on how to navigate and overcome communication challenges in your case interview and beyond.

Embrace the Growth Mindset: Communication, like any skill, can be improved with dedication and practice. Viewing each case interview as an opportunity to learn and grow will help you embrace challenges as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks.

Practice Deliberately: Leverage every opportunity to practice your communication skills, whether through mock interviews, presenting your ideas to friends, or even recording yourself. Focus on the areas that challenge you the most, be it brevity, clarity, or structuring your thoughts.

Seek Constructive Feedback: Feedback is a gift that provides insights into how others perceive your communication style. Seek out mentors, peers, or coaches who can provide you with honest, constructive feedback and actionable advice on how to improve.

Stay Curious and Informed: The more you know about your industry, the more confidently you’ll be able to communicate about it. Stay informed about the latest trends, research, and best practices in consulting to enrich your knowledge base and communication content.

Remember the Human Element: At its core, effective communication is about making a connection. Remember to inject warmth, authenticity, and empathy into your interactions. This human element can often be the differentiator in a highly competitive environment.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q: How important is communication in consulting case interviews?
A: Communication is critically important. It’s not just about the content of your answers but how effectively you convey your ideas. Clear, concise, and structured communication can significantly impact your success in case interviews.

Q: Can I improve my communication skills in a short period?
A: Yes, with focused practice and the right strategies, you can improve your communication skills. Focus on key areas such as clarity, brevity, and structured thinking. Practice regularly and seek feedback to accelerate your progress.

Q: What is top-down communication, and why is it preferred in consulting?
A: Top-down communication involves presenting your main point or conclusion first, followed by supporting arguments. It’s preferred in consulting because it ensures that your key message is communicated clearly and efficiently, respecting the time constraints and attention spans of busy professionals.

Q: How can I practice my communication skills for case interviews?
A: Practice by engaging in mock interviews and drills, recording yourself answering case questions, participating in case interview clubs, or working with a coach. Focus on structuring your responses and being concise and clear.

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