Land the McKinsey Offer Part 3: Communication Skills

Published: Aug 22, 2017

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Communication is, without doubt, the most underrated skill of the consulting interview. Here’s the crazy thing: most candidates don’t even realize they will be explicitly evaluated on it!

Indeed, many soft skills are critical for success in consulting interviews. But communication is the "building block" soft skill because firms, rightly so, see it as an enabler for other skillsets they also care about like leadership and collaboration.

Before jumping in though, let’s quickly recap where we are in our series on the basket of skills that consulting interviews test you on. Here’s the full list (and we covered the analytical skills in our first two posts here and here):

  • Analytical skills: problem structuring, charts analysis, mental math
  • "Soft" skills: communication, leadership, collaboration, personal drive

Why do communication skills matter so much?

Elite consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG and Bain are widely known for their analytical chops and quantitative rigor. As a result, many prospective consultants ignore the importance of effective communication. After all, if you arrive at the right answer to a complicated client problem, does it really matter how you communicate it?

Many candidates think not. They are wrong.

Why? Getting the right answer is only half the work.

The other half is getting buy in from your own teammates, your managers, your partners, your clients, the client’s exec team and, ultimately, anyone at the client company needed to implement your solution. The lynchpin to wrangling and aligning all that buy-in is effective communication. Thus, effective communication is an incredibly highly prized skill in the consulting world.

OK, so how do I communicate effectively?

Great question. The simple heuristic to keep in mind is this: effective communication optimizes for the audience’s understanding.

What are the implications of this? Primarily that how you communicate should be based off your judgments of what will be clearest for your audience. Everyone will have their own unique style (and that’s good!), but there are a few key tactics you should keep in mind which will help you deliver your message effectively:

  1. Structure your communication
  2. Read and react to your audience

Structure your communication

Structure, structure, structure! Many people think that communication is inherently fluffy. It is not. Great communication has great structure. Great communication helps maximize impact by providing the audience with a verbal framework up front and letting them populate it as you expound on the details. By providing a verbal framework for your thoughts, you are minimizing the work the audience needs to do to understand your point. That’s a win.

For example, if you’re concluding a case interview and your interviewer asks you to summarize the results, one option to begin listing off the key things you’ve learned and your final recommendation. However, a higher impact way to conclude would be to start with a verbal structure (eg, “My recommendation is that the client take X course of action because of three key reasons. Those reasons are…”). The latter example leads with a verbal structure that makes the thinking crystal clear to follow (for full examples on verbal structures in frameworks see these video tutorials).

Read your audience and react appropriately

You probably don’t speak to a dog the same way you speak to your boss. If you do, you are definitely not reading your audience! In that example, the delta is stark, so the tone, cadence, diction and style changes come naturally to most people. But what’s the difference between speaking to your boss who’ve you’ve known for two years and an interviewer you met five minutes ago?

Reading your audience will help you adjust your communication based off the facial (e.g., a look of confusion), verbal (e.g. "Sorry, I don’t understand that") and physical (e.g., leaning back, disengaged) cues you might get from your interviewer. Utilize these clues to tailor your communication appropriately. For example, if your interviewer appears to be lost when trying to follow your train of thought, pause and explain your thinking. Conversely, if your interviewer is nodding vigorously at every point you’re making and agreeing with you, maybe you can shorten explanations for each point. Reading your audience successfully will take practice, but the good news is, you can literally practice in any conversation you have (not just interviewing)!

A final note

Effective communication is paramount. If you remember nothing else, remember this: the cornerstone of effective communication is optimizing for your audience’s understanding. Structuring your communication and reading the audience and making adjustments will get you eighty percent of the way there. Finally, if you’re struggling to get a read on your audience, a helpful tip is to err on the side of over communication. It’s easier to start there and dial back if your audience indicates they’re already on the same page. 

Kenton Kivestu is the Founder and CEO of RocketBlocks, an online platform that helps students prepare for case interviews. Prior to RocketBlocks, he worked as a strategy consultant in BCG's San Francisco Office, launched online ad platforms at Google and led the Zynga mobile poker franchise. He has successfully navigated hundreds of case interviews himself and believes that the case interview is an important recruiting tool that helps simulate the on the job experience. He started RocketBlocks to help candidates hone their analytical skills so they can put their best foot forward on interview day. Kenton graduated as an Echols Scholar with distinction from the University of Virginia and holds an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.