Initially, most candidates I coach for McKinsey, BCG, and Bain struggle with communicating effectively during the case interview. In fact, their issues with communication 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
Effective communication in consulting interviews
Broadly speaking, there are two core communication issues in case interviews, top-down communication and focusing on the key message.
Top-down vs. bottom-up communication
Why do so many people struggle with top-down communication? The simple answer is: It is not natural. Before starting to prepare for consulting interviews to kick off their McKinsey 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 in the most effective and concise way.
The solution to this problem is to turn your communication upside-down. First, provide your statement, then come 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, 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, your needs, and then ask a specific request. However, this is just a side note since it is not relevant for the case interviews.
Focusing on the 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?
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.
Practice this by recording your answers and see 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 that 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 thoughts, 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.
Overcoming your communication issues
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:
- Framework, structure and idea generation
- Exhibit interpretation
- Case math
In order to guide your thinking and communication, there are just two simple habits you need to adopt:
- Signposting: Announce all of your ideas before guiding the interviewer through it in more depth
- 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
Case framework: ‘’I want to structure my solution into 3 parts, the first part is <___>, the second part is <___>, 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 interpretation: ‘’I see 4 key insights on this chart. The first is <___>, the second is <___>,…”
Case math: ‘’I want to approach this calculation in 3 steps. The first step is <___>, the second step is <___>,…’’
Recommendation: ‘’The 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
- to the point
Resources to improve your communication skills
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, 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 a 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 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 a summary of the Pyramid Principle by 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.
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