How do you win first place?
Do you need natural talent?
A rigorous training schedule?
Does it come down to your drive?
Ask any investment banking or corporate strategy professional what it takes to succeed on the job (read: what it takes to earn top tier bonus), and you’ll hear a few themes over and over again:
- Attention to detail
- Solid technical / Excel / analytical skills
- A good attitude
- Time management
But there’s one overlooked soft skill that’s critical to all of those: communication.
If you can’t explain a mistake you just found, no one will acknowledge your attention to detail.
If you can’t persuade your teammates to work well together, no one will know that you’re a team player.
And if you can’t summarize your technical analysis in simple terms, no one will care how many scenarios your Excel model supports.
So communication skills are vital.
But no one ever explains exactly how to “communicate effectively” when you’re in the finance industry.
Let’s start by explaining that precisely, and then look at a senior banker meeting gone disastrously wrong – and what you can do to fix it:
What are “Good Communication Skills”?
You speak with the right people using the right contact method, the right words, and the right level of detail – and then you achieve the result you intended.
Most “communication problems” come from getting one or more of those wrong:
- The Right People: If you have a technical problem or question, why are you speaking to a VP or MD about it? If you’re having a problem with a co-worker, do you really expect to resolve it by speaking with another analyst or associate… or even HR or your staffer?
- The Right Contact Method: Are you relying on email rather than the phone or in-person discussions? Or, likewise, are you bothering people with too many live updates that would be more effective via email?
- The Right Words: Common mistakes include using language that’s too formal or too casual, or beating around the bush without getting to the point.
- The Right Level of Detail: You have to strike a balance between giving too much detail and too little detail; the best way to do this is to prepare a “short version” of your explanations, and a longer version if the person really wants more detail.
To illustrate how easy it is to get these wrong, let’s look at a common scenario: working with a mid-level banker and then getting asked to explain technical analysis to a senior banker.
How NOT to Explain a Technical Concept to a Senior Banker
It’s 7 PM, and the senior people are starting to go home. Your VP stops by and says that you have to go through a presentation with your MD tomorrow. He’s going to ask you to explain the technical slides.
You’re really busy with other work, so you only get around to the presentation at 11 PM… but then you have a bunch of questions on the assumptions.
You want to save everyone time, so you email the VP with the draft presentation and your questions right before you leave at 2 AM.
The next morning, he sends you a short reply and you redo parts of the presentation.
An hour later, he stops by and you both go in and speak with the MD.
You sit there listening while they discuss the qualitative parts first.
Then, the MD asks you to explain how you calculated accretion / dilution on one slide.
You look down at your Excel printout and start going into detail on the revenue and expense assumptions, how you selected the right interest rate to use, and how you rolled forward the Balance Sheet to get the proper cash and debt balances…
The MD’s eyes glaze over, he glances at the VP with an annoyed look, and then he cuts you off to get the short version instead.
You comb through your notes for a minute, and then you state the 4-5 key assumptions.
Then, the MD asks you how this potential deal compares to a few other recent transactions.
You didn’t have time to look at those, so you say that you’ll get back to him with a summary.
He runs off to a meeting, and you and the VP both leave.
You just made 5 separate communication mistakes in this brief interaction:
- Mistake #1: Emailing the VP with the presentation and your questions at 2 AM (Wrong person, wrong contact method).
- Mistake #2: Failing to know about other recent deals in the space.
- Mistake #3: Not taking notes when the VP and MD were speaking about the qualitative parts.
- Mistake #4: Not having a “short version” of your analysis prepared for the MD.
- Mistake #5: Using the wrong body language in the meeting.
A single meeting like this won’t kill you.
Here’s how you could have fixed all these mistakes:
Step 1: Contact the Right People Using the Right Method
Unless the VP told you to send him the draft presentation and your questions before you went home, there was no point in sending it to him because:
- You’re better off asking other analysts/associates for help with anything technical first – especially for points not specific to this deal.
- For anything else, it’s better to stop by briefly in-person to ask the VP your questions. Think about the time required to ask your questions in-person vs. the time required to write a long email, wait for the VP to read it, and then wait for his responses.
If he’s traveling or is otherwise unreachable, email might be more appropriate.
Before you even think about contacting someone, ask yourself: “Is this the right person? Could someone else more junior answer my questions? Is this the most efficient way to convey my points or get my questions answered?”
Step 2: Know a Lot About a Little, and a Little About a Lot
The second step – preparation – begins before you say anything, and even before you listen to anything.
In this scenario, for example, yes, you need to know about the details of your analysis.
But you also need to know about “higher-level” happenings in the space and anything else that might be relevant, such as recent news, similar deals, and so on.
Yes, you’re busy… but you also have plenty of downtime, time spent on transportation, and so on – use that time to read up on news about these broader topics.
Although it didn’t come up here, the MD or VP easily could have asked you about something completely off-topic: celebrity gossip, politics, sports news, etc.
So even when you’re working crazy hours, you still need to spend some time keeping up with the outside world – for a good demonstration of how important this is, check out Stephen Colbert’s “Employing a Veteran – Sergeant Bryan Escobedo.”
Before you walked into the MD’s office, you should have spent 10-15 minutes looking up recent deals to make sure you could discuss other happenings in the market.
Step 3: Structure, Structure, Structure… and Organization
Think about your favorite speech.
If you don’t have one, here are some examples (warning: the audio is NSFW):
To the point.
And (relatively) short.
Senior people rarely, if ever, want the “long version” from you.
Before you even got out of your chair, you should have sketched out a “short version” and a “long version” of what you would say:
- Short Version: “Sure. The point of this analysis was to see whether or not this deal was feasible for the buyer. In the model, we used the management team’s figures – 10% revenue growth and 20% operating margins – and found that the deal would be 10% accretive to the buyer with 50% cash and 50% stock used. So it looks like an easy deal for both parties to agree to, at least on paper. Did you want more detail on any of that?”
- Long(er) Version: Here, you’d be prepared to explain where each of those assumptions come from. What portion of the revenue growth came from an increase in units sold vs. price increases? Were the margins constant year-over-year, or did you assume cost savings? How did you determine that it would be a 50/50 cash/stock deal?
For technical explanations like this one, you can use this structure:
- Purpose: Why did you do this work? Was it to assess the IRR? Accretion / dilution? Implied value of a company?
- Assumptions: Where did you get them from, and what were the most important ones? What was the purchase price? Assumed growth rate and margins? Purchase method? Interest rates?
- Results: Tie this back to your purpose in the beginning – what was the IRR or range of IRRs, for example? And what does that mean for the client or potential client?
Step 4: Listen, Listen, Listen, and Take Notes… Until You Get a Question
The part where you just listened to the VP and MD may not “seem” like a mistake because you didn’t say anything inappropriate.
But you did make a different mistake: you failed to take notes on what was said.
Senior bankers will often ask you for details on previous conversations with clients, potential clients, and even co-workers.
A lot of articles about “communication skills” mention the importance of listening, so swap in “note-taking” whenever you see a reference to “listening.”
Within the span of this single meeting, the VP or MD could have even asked you for something they mentioned 5-10 minutes ago.
If you haven’t been taking notes, chances are you won’t be able to recall all the details.
Step 5: Use the Right Body Language
Remember how you looked down at your Excel printouts when the MD asked you to explain the analysis?
That was another mistake: you should have maintained eye contact when explaining yourself.
And that means you need to know your points well enough to explain them without looking down at anything.
To make things even worse, you then spent time afterward combing through your notes to find answers… whoops.
These aren’t necessarily huge “mistakes,” but they do make the senior bankers wonder how competent you are… and what bonus tier you belong in.
How to Talk to Senior Bankers – Makeover Mode
So how could you fix this entire interaction if you could go back in time?
Instead of emailing the VP with your presentation and questions late at night, ask other junior people first.
If no one is around at 2 AM, ask them in the morning.
Then, take your remaining questions to the VP when he’s around – before you meet with the MD – and ask if he has a few minutes to go through the points with you.
After you get answers, take 10 minutes to prepare a “short version” of what you did, outlining it if necessary.
And make sure you can give more detail around each point in your short explanation, just in case.
Then, if you’re looking at a hypothetical deal, read up on similar deals over the past year so you can sound intelligent in the meeting.
When you arrive, take notes on the discussion until you’re asked to speak.
When you are, make eye contact and give your “short version,” which should consist of a few sentences. Ask if they need more detail at the end.
If other topics come up, resist the urge to speak unless you are extremely confident of your knowledge.
And if they ask something where you really don’t know the answer, it IS a good idea to say that you’ll get back to them with the answer when you have it (this part was correct).
Talking Your Way to the Top Bonus
This scenario above may seem minor: the entire interaction might have taken 15-20 minutes out of your entire day.
Remember, though: every interaction counts and first impressions carry a lot of weight.
If you rarely speak to the MD, short meetings like this will make a disproportionate impact on how he sees you… and how much he pulls for you in bonus discussions, promotion discussions, and recommendation letters.
And if you move to the buy-side, communication skills are even more vital: if the management team of a company doesn’t feel comfortable with you, how will you work with them after your firm buys the company?
How will you be able to uncover information on potential investments during channel checks if suppliers or customers are confused by your questions?
Technical skills, attention to detail, teamwork, and leadership are all important, but there’s no substitute for communication skills.
Just ask anyone who has talked their way to the top.