Answer First Communication: How To Sound Like a Consultant

Liz Kenny

Liz Kenny

Former McKinsey Consultant

Answer first communication doesn’t mean waving your hands in the air to be first to answer a question. It means you lead the conversation with your most important takeaway, and then you follow up with an organized list of supporting insights.

It takes practice for most people to master answer first communication because they are used to communicating facts first and then summarizing at the end.

When you’re preparing for consulting interviews, you want to look the look, and you really want to talk the talk! One of the essential consulting skills to nail down for your interviews is answer first communication. 

In this article, we’ll discuss:

  • Key elements of answer first communication
  • Why answer first communication works in consulting interviews and on the job
  • Examples of how to use answer first communication
  • 5 tips to practice how to master answer first communication
  • Further resources to master consulting-speak

Let’s get started!

Meaning of Answer First Communication

Answer first communication
The 3 core elements of answer first communication include: 

  1. Start with your solution: The most important thing you can do is to start with a clear and compelling recommendation.
  2. Provide essential information at a high level: These are the important themes and insights that influence your recommendations.
  3. Share the impactful points from your detailed analysis and research: You can refer to the analysis and synthesis you perform during the case interview. These will help tie together your work with your recommendation for the interviewer.

Answer first communication is also referred to as the Pyramid Principle, an approach that has guided consultants for decades and was created by a McKinsey consultant. Once you’ve absorbed this primer, check out our deep dive on the Pyramid Principle.

Why Answer First Communication Works

Answer first communication is the most effective way to partner with clients to solve problems. 

But why? 

Answer first communication makes the best use of your clients’ time, and it inspires confidence. You want your client to walk out of every meeting with you feeling as if that was a good use of their time, not frustrated or like they hired someone who “doesn’t get it.” 

As a consultant, you’re hired to solve a large, complex problem that the employees at the company don’t have the time or expertise to solve. 

You may think this means they want you to walk them through everything you’ve learned. Nope! They want you to identify a great solution to the problem or opportunity they set out for you and for your team to tell them the essential information they need to know. 

On a project, you’ll spend all your time going deep on analysis, conducting and synthesizing interviews, and making slides so that your client doesn’t have to do that work. 

With answer first communication, you give your client the solution they’re looking for, and then you give them the information they need to make strategic decisions.

Using Answer First Communication With Clients

Answer First Communication Examples

You can use answer first communication at ALL stages of the case interview to share the structures and frameworks you’re using, as well as initial hypotheses. It’s not just a tool you use to synthesize your recommendation.

Here are some examples of using answer first communication throughout the case interview:

  • Structure Overview: If you recognize a framework you’re using, you can name it before you walk through your structure. That way, you’re not keeping the interviewer in suspense as you tick through several topics.
  • Conceptual Thinking: There are many ways to organize conceptual information. For example, in a cost savings case, you can explain to your interviewer that you’d like to think through the problem in terms of Fixed Costs vs. Variable Costs. An alternative path would be to say you’d like to focus on the five largest cost categories. While Fixed vs. Variable may be the more typical approach, if you focus on the largest cost categories, you may be getting ahead of the case! You may be able to hypothesize that cost savings in a few major areas may be the only way to meet target cost savings.
  • Analytical Thinking: Outline the approach you’re going to take before you start crunching numbers. For example, for a market growth calculation, you should explain that you will compare the size of the market in one time period to another. This may feel like extra work, but it has spared many a consultant from going the wrong direction in a case interview (like me!) Once you’ve completed your analysis, it’s important to recap what the numerical answer means for the case. For example, if you calculated a low market growth rate, this may put the client’s goals in doubt.
  • Synthesis: When you’re ready to wrap up, confidently state your recommendation, followed by the themes you’ve identified in your structure and conceptual thinking, and insert only the strongest data points needed to cement your case.
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5 Ways to Practice Answer First Communication

1. Practice Answer First Communication During Case Prep

There is no substitute for practicing answer first communication during practice case interviews. It is fundamentally a different way of communicating, and also a really valuable skill to hone. You may think you’ve done enough if you’ve studied all the frameworks and drawn out tons of structures on a blank white sheet of paper. It’s also important to practice the skill of leading with the answer while you’re thinking, writing, and talking. The best way to do this is to practice cases with your peers. 

When you give a case interview to a friend, you get to observe how they approach cases and borrow some approaches you like! I learned how to structure a case by watching a certain friend who was incredible at it. When your friends conduct a case interview for you, you get to rehearse the experience of leading with the answer and supporting it with key insights.

2. Practice Answer First Communication at Various Steps of the Case

Communicate how you are going to do something. If your interviewer follows your logic, this puts them at ease while you work through the details. 

For example, let’s say your interviewer shares info on a profit growth case. Before you start drawing your structure, you can say, “Great! I’d like to organize this information by Revenue and Costs. How does that sound?” If they agree, they can then sit in silence while you sketch out your structure because they have confidence you are on the right track. If they have a different point of view or helpful information, they can redirect you before you are too deep into your structure.

The same approach works for case math. Tell your interviewer how you plan to calculate cost growth before you do the math. They may even offer you a shortcut that saves you time.

Consultant Using Answer First Communication During Case Prep

3. Practice Using Different Frameworks for the Same Case

You may feel confident you’ve identified the best way to think about something, but your interviewer may challenge you to organize information differently. It’s valuable to be fluent in different ways to structure or solve a problem. Your interviewer may challenge your approach to see how well you respond to pushback.

4. Practice Your Approach to the Analytical Portions of the Case

You can do drills where you walk through how you calculate various profit and loss levers, market share sizings, revenue cost drivers, etc., so these high-level frameworks are second nature to you.

5. Practice With Scenarios in Your Daily Life

You will get thrown some curveballs that are hard to communicate using answer first communication. If you prepare for the unexpected, it will help you combat nerves in your interview. 

You can practice answer first communication when you recommend a restaurant you like. Here’s an example: 

Answer First: You should try that new Thai place on Wells Street! 

Essential Information: They have really authentic dishes and awesome service.  

Impactful points: I had the crab rangoon and the panang curry. The panang wasn’t too spicy. 

See how the example flowed from the recommendation to the key reasons to the granular information? If you practice this structure in your daily life, it should feel more natural during a case interview.

Using Answer First Communication in Daily Life with Colleagues

More Resources To Help You Talk Like a Consultant

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In this article, we’ve covered:

  • How to define answer first communication 
  • How important answer first communication is
  • Ways to use answer first communication in a case interview
  • Top 5 tips to practice answer first communication
  • Additional resources to speak like a consultant

Still have questions?

If you have more questions about the answer first communication, leave them in the comments below. One of My Consulting Offer’s case coaches will answer them.

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