How to Talk like a Consultant

Will B

Consultants use a lot of jargon. It only takes a few weeks in the industry and you will be using every abbreviation and piece of insider vocabulary in the business. From “top down” to “boil the ocean” to “deep dive”, consultants have a shortcut for everything.

These phrases are used across all sorts of consultancies in English speaking countries. They are transferrable and explain concepts that are sometimes hard to articulate. On occasions, you might even be able to slip them into an interview scenario to impress your interviewer.

Of course some consultants hate these phrases as well. Having to explain what they mean to clients, or just confusing the average observer is frustrating. In all honesty, lots of them are just as easy to explain in normal language. An interviewer of this type might think you are a total fool!

Boil the Ocean

This is a big one. ‘Boiling the ocean’ refers to being on a project and starting from a long view or starting from scratch without making any assumptions. It is something that consultants usually try to avoid.

Typically, when you do a project, after gathering the data and speaking with the firm’s employees, you know where to start. If not, you will be encouraged to come up with a hypothesis of where to start. This avoids covering everything and analysing things that are not causing the problem.

Boiling the ocean would be to do the opposite and think about all possible variables. It might seem intuitive because it is more thorough, but this is not how things are done. It wastes time and suggests that you don’t know what you are doing. Consultants should make assumptions and this is something that improves with time.

80/20

This is a pretty clever one and quite tricky to explain. The ’80/20′ rule basically means that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. So you can change 20% of a business to create an 80% change in whatever metric you are trying to impact.

This is also called the Pareto Principle. A management consultant called Joseph Juran came up with it and named it after Vilifredo Pareto, an Italian Economist. Pareto was famous for his work on the prisoners’ dilemma, where two prisoners work out the best options they have to escape; collaborate, or rat each other out. Although the Pareto Principle maximises returns, it is hardly related to anything Pareto actually did!

Most economists have long forgotten its origin and just use his rather clever rule. It still applies to lots of areas; for example, 80% or more of a country’s income is typically distributed to the top 20%. For consultants, it means that if you can figure out that 20%, you are golden. That doesn’t mean the other 80% can’t be improved, but it probably means you are on the right track. Like the previous rule, avoid spending too much time thinking about the entire 100%!

Ballpark

This is probably the most self-explanatory. A ‘ballpark’ figure is essentially an estimate. Usually it is towards the upper limit of a possible range. Think of it as meaning that the real figure should fall somewhere within the ballpark. i.e. less than the suggested figure.

Deep Dive

Here’s a goodie. A ‘deep dive’ is when, after the preliminary analysis, the team of consultants finds the issue that is really causing a problem and delves into into it in much more detail.

This is sort of what you do at the case study part of the interview. After your initial assessment, you find the data that is really causing the firm some damage and wrestle it back into place.

This speaks directly to the 80/20 rule. When you have found that 20% that needs to change, you commence the deep dive! Of course some projects don’t actually need this process. The conclusions might be achingly obvious and the required changes might not need too much further thought.

10,000 feet

The ‘10,000 feet’ rule is a sense checker. When you are closing in on a recommendation for the client, you will want to use it.

Your team will reconsider the work you have done from the perspective of 10,000 feet. Or just from a bit of distance! This usually means stepping away and reflecting on what you have and done and how you did it.

First and foremost you need to make sure your conclusions are sensible. This doesn’t just mean mathematically correct, but that it is client friendly. i.e. It must be easy to understand, complicit with their priorities and feasible to implement.

The 10,000 feet rule is also the point at which you consider any other implications that your strategy might have. You will need to map-out its impact on other products, costs, marketing etc and try to predict any pitfalls that might appear on the path. For example, if you are suggesting the introduction of a new product range, is this likely to eat in to, or cannibalise, the firm’s existing products?

Back of the envelope

‘Back of the envelope’ means a quick estimate. As in, the conclusion you would be able to get from workings fitting on an envelope. Make it sharp.

This is sort of what is being tested in the mathematical part of case studies. Being able to quick, mental maths and then being able to present what you have done in a structured way. Remember, speed is good, but its useless if you get to the wrong answer. The same thing applies here…

For more advice on how to get some of this language into your cover letter and make yourself sound, like a consultant, go here.

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