I. Thinking about the “how” instead of the “what”
When I reflect back on my first role at Consulting firm, I realize that my biggest challenge was unlearning everything I had learned over the previous 26 years. Throughout school you are asked to do specific things. For example, you are asked to write a 5 page paper on Dr Yunus – double spaced, 12 font and answering two or three specific questions.
In school, to be successful you should follow the rules. However, in consulting there are no rules on the “what.” Typically the problem you are asked to solve is ambiguous and complex – exactly why they hire you. In consulting, you are taught the rules around the “how” and have to then fill in the what. The “how” can be taught and I’ll show you a few things below. However, the “what” takes practice
II. How to think like a consultant
There are two “must haves” as a consultant. Without these two traits you will struggle to do consulting-type work:
- A healthy obsession looking for a “better way” to do things
- Being open minded to shifting ideas and other
In business school, you might noticed in a class that everyone was very good at coming up with reasons why something should not be done. This is really easy and is an attitude that I have seen become more prevalent in the business world. I’m not really sure why this is the case – but this type of attitude will be counterproductive to solving any sort of consulting project.
Creating an effective and persuasive consulting like presentation requires a comfort with uncertainty combined with a slightly delusional belief that you can figure anything out.
III. First things first – define the problem!
Before doing the work, time should be spent on defining the actual problem. Too often, people are solutions focused when they think about fixing something. Let’s say a company is struggling with profitability. Someone might define the problem as “we do not have enough growth.” This would be incorrect. This is more of a symptom than a root cause.
I’ll walk through the steps you would take to identify the problem. In reality this may take hours of team problem solving and looking through lots of data and information:
- Profitability is composed of revenue and costs
- Costs have remained relatively constant and are actually below industry average so revenue must be the issue
- Revenue has been increasing, but at a slowing rate
- This company sells widgets and have had no slowdown on the number of units it has sold over the last five years
- However, the prices per widget is actually below where it was five years ago
- There have been new entrants in the market in the last three years and they have been backed by VC money and are aggressively pricing their products below costs
This may lead to a problem definition as such:
The company is struggling to increase profitability due to decreasing prices driven by new entrants in the market. The company needs to understand how to respond to the price pressure from competitors and think about its product strategy to compete in this market.
IV. How to approach a problem like a consultant
Now the fun starts!
There are generally two approaches to building consulting-like presentations and will depend a lot on whether you are working alone or in a team and if in a team, what type of personalities are on your team.
First is top-down. This is what you should start with, especially for a newer “consultant.” This involves taking the problem statement and mapping out a high level structure of what you are doing. This typically would take the form of a hypothesis – key questions you can either prove or disprove. As you would imagine, these can continue to evolve the deeper you go into a problem.
Here is a very simplified structure of how your project may start out
- Company X has room to improve prices in current dynamic
- Company X can explore new market opportunities unlocked by new entrants
- Company X can explore new business models or operating models due to advances in technology
Once you establish the direction or the structure you would embark on the second method of building a presentation – a bottoms-up approach. This involves researching 100 different things and continuing to ask questions and do more analysis. As you do the analysis, you start to see different patterns and aligning it with the problem definition we defined above. As you become more experienced in consulting and more comfortable with structuring and making sense of information, this approach becomes more realistic.
In reality a project vacillates many times between these two approaches. Here is a hypothetical timeline of a project:
V. How to make a slide like a consultant
The next step is taking the structure and research and turning it into a slide. When people see slides from Top Tier Consulting firm, they see something that is compelling and unique, but don’t really understand all the work that goes into those slides. The companies have a healthy obsession with how things look, how things are structured and how they are presented.
They also don’t understand how much work is spent on telling a compelling “story.” The biggest mistake people make in the business world is mistaking showing a lot of information versus telling a compelling story. This is an easy mistake to make – especially if you are the one that did hours of analysis. It may seem important, but when it comes down to making a slide and a presentation, you end up deleting more information rather than adding. You really need to remember the following:
Data matters, but stories change hearts and minds
Some simple rules:
#1 – Format, format, format
Both McKinsey and BCG had style templates that were obsessively followed. Some key rules I like to follow:
- Make sure all text within your slide body is the same font size (harder than you would think)
- Do not go outside of the margins into the white space on the side
- All titles throughout the presentation should be 2 lines or less and stay the same font size
- Each slide should typically only make one strong point
#2 – Titles are the takeaway
The title of the slide should be the key insight or takeaway and the slide area should prove the point. The below slide is an oversimplification of this.
Even in consulting, I found that people struggled with simplifying a message to one key theme per slide. If something is going to be presented live, the simpler the better. In reality, you are often giving someone presentations that they will read in depth and more information may make sense.
#3 – Leveraging the Pyramid Principle
The pyramid principle is an approach popularize by Barbara Minto and essential to the structured problem solving approach I learned at Consulting. Learning this approach has changed the way I look at any presentation since.
This slide gives a rough framework of this approach:
Taking our profitability example from above, you would say that increasing profitability is our “main goal.” Assuming the three hypothesis you developed are true, they may develop into the following three points as in the graph above.
- Company X can increase prices and can do so through tactics A,B,C
- Markets A and B have been unlocked by new entrants and Company X is poised to exploit
- Business Model X can help Company C exploit new pricing strategies and also support movement into new markets. These ultimately will help lead the company to increase in X% profitability
These three ideas not only are distinct but they also build on each other. Combined, they tell a story of what the company should do and how they should react. Each of these three “points” may be a separate section. Within each point, you would have several slides of analysis and information helping to prove the point that these stances are in fact true.
#4 – Have “MECE” Ideas for max persuasion
“MECE” means mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive – meaning all points listed cover the entire range of ideas while also being unique and differentiated from each other.
An extreme example would be this:
- Slide title: There are seven continents
- Slide content: The seven continents are North America, South America, Europe, Africa Asia, Antarctica, Australia
The list of continents provides seven distinct points that when taken together are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. The MECE principle is not perfect – it is more of an ideal to push your logic in the right direction. Use it to continually improve and refine your story.
Applying this to a profitability problem at the highest level would look like this:
Goal: Increase profitability
2nd level: Can increase revenue or decrease costs
3rd level: Can increase revenue by selling more or increasing prices
Each level is MECE. It is almost impossible to argue against any of this (unless you are willing to commit accounting fraud!).
VI. Getting Reps
Ultimately, this is not something you will master overnight. I’ve been in the consulting industry for a while and am still looking for ways to make better presentations, become more persuasive and get feedback on individual slides.
Now, once you have done the underlying work, there might be one or two tricks to polish your presentation (e.g. one slide = one message, have an “action title” that is supported by the rest of the slide, just to mention a few…), but it’s far from being the most important – and that’s why I won’t insist on it here. At the end of the day, a good “management consulting style” presentation, has little to do with style itself, and a lot with substance.