“You’re a consultant! Be clear! Make a plan and stick to it! Don’t drone on and on! Back everything up with numbers!”
When I started consulting as a domain expert in energy and biotech, this was, more or less, the feedback I received from a friend of mine who was a seasoned consultant.
As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, I work as an expert consultant for companies and financial firms to bring them up to speed on topics and to answer questions. My work is similar to that of other PhDs, in that it deals with complex information and ideas. However, I had to learn a very different style of speaking when I began consulting. The objectives in consulting and academia are different in important ways, and so are the styles of communication.
In academia, the primary objective is to discover and to convey a big new idea. An academic uses dialog to explore ideas and to find those few brilliant insights that will bring success and fame. Unfortunately, academic discussions often ramble, meander, and confound. Such talk is forgivable–many of the concepts are new and incomplete. As such, tolerance for long-winded and incoherent talk is unusually high in academia. However, this high tolerance is rare in business.
In expert consulting, the primary objective is usually to bring clarity and insight to a topic. My value is determined by what I know and how I communicate it, and confusing talk is not easily forgiven. I use dialog to identify what a client needs to know and to convey information that will help a client make better informed decisions. A consultant needs to know the topic broadly, to identify what is relevant, and to focus on communicating the overview and details effectively.
The simple advice for effective communication is to do your homework and to get organized. But, how you prepare is at least as important as how much you work at it. You have to get organized in a certain way to bring clarity to industries or technologies that seem unclear and chaotic.
Bringing order to chaos
The answer to chaos is structure. Smart preparation makes for a good talk or a good article… and so too with consulting. Start with understanding your client: who are they and what kind of information do they need? Creating structure for the information will allow you to create a clear picture of the topic and place the right details and facts in that picture. Creating structure means that you will organize all of the important details of the topic in a certain way.
The most important advice I received was to create structure that encompasses the entire topic. The idea is to create a big picture overview (the 20,000 foot view) that includes all of the details, with an intermediate layer or two of more detailed areas or subtopics. A hierarchy of ideas that fit together.
At the outset, it’s good to define the topic clearly. What does the topic encompass and why is it important in the world? This usually amounts to the biz question: “what is the market?”
How does the use of structure look in practice? As a hypothetical topic, let’s consider a new technology being developed at a certain company. Typical questions and answers might look as follows:
Q: What’s the market for the technology?
A: $800M per year next year, with about 15% annual growth. I base this on the current market for some similar technologies and projections I can cite.
Q: How many types of technologies are there that compete with this one?
A: There are two other major types of technologies being developed in several companies. I categorized all of the different technologies in all of the different companies in categories X, Y, or Z.
Q: How many other companies are developing competing technologies?
A: There are about eighteen total, but five that I believe are important players… and I can list and discuss them.
Q: How long will it be until the technology is actually ready and being sold to customers?
A: The company says Q4 of next year. I think that that’s probably realistic, although bear in mind that this seems to be a difficult technology. I’m considering that the company has delivered on time with other technologies, they have enough money to get it done, and the management team is highly regarded.
What’s important to note for the answers above is that they include specific numbers, dates, and categories. What’s also important to consider is that much of it is approximate, yet it is succinct.
All of these answers required my own organization (“structure”) and judgment calls. To arrive at the $800M market size number, I have made my own judgment calls for which technologies comprise the market we’re discussing. Also, there may be 9 or 13 different technology categories that are discussed on various websites, but I’ve decided to condense these to three. I’ve also decided that five companies are the important players worth discussing and that the company’s timeline to take its technology to market is realistic. Without the numbers, categories, and judgment calls, a discussion could quickly become academic–meandering endlessly through the uncertainties in numbers, technology types, and timelines.
My main point in presenting this example is to illustrate why structure is needed when speaking as a consultant. In depth understanding of 18 companies with technologies is not enough by itself. The client wants a good enough understanding to make decisions, rather than an endless discussion of minutiae. How the topic is organized keeps things clear for a client during a long discussion. This type of organization takes forethought.
Honing your communication style
Recognizing that communication styles differ is an important first step to achieving more effective communication. Combining this recognition with lots of practice speaking to different kinds of people will help you hone your communication style.
To familiarize yourself with business language and concepts, start reading business publications, such as Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review as well as finance blogs.
Obviously, there’s much more to learn about how to frame and communicate ideas than can be covered in this blog. Books on business or management consulting (e.g., The McKinsey Mind) offer some guidance on how to frame, structure, and analyze business problems.
Finally, finding opportunities where you can step in and practice your communication skills will go the farthest.
“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” – Aristotle