Consulting is a performance art

Consulting is not like working in industry. Not at all. If you want to be successful in consulting you need to understand it is performance art. If you can accept that some part of what you are doing is acting and getting the audience to believe your performance you will have a much better time.

I am starting my 9th year in consulting, and prior to that, I had several years in government service and more than a decade in industry, this post is the first one where I will talk about what I learned is different between those spaces.

Doing your own stunts, and learning new ones.

To be a consultant and to be a high performing individual contributor in industry are both very similar at the base level. You need to know your stuff. You need to be able to “do your own stunts”. That does mean studying in your own time. That does mean getting certifications. That does mean reading industry news and trends.

However, in industry, you may be able to camp out on a specific technology or a specific version of a technology that is in use at the firm and go deeper and deeper in that one area. In consulting that is different, the focus is on building depth on things that are the current and next version of the products you are working in. You also need to be pretty well versed on the competing products as well.

You have to be constantly learning new things in both scenarios, but the focus on new and emerging is different for consulting.

Knowing the right answer is less than half the battle.

GI Joe may have told you that knowing was half the battle. In consulting it is more like 10% of the battle. They say that communication is 90% non-verbal, so it is with consulting. So knowing the right answer to a problem is not enough. That is the 10%. The rest of your job as a consultant involves convincing yourself and the client that it is the right answer.

And I do say “convince yourself” since you will need to make sure you believe the answer. if you are not convinced the client will be able to tell. The first acceptable answer might not be the best possible answer. So that does mean going through and researching all the other possible alternatives and then weighing the pros and cons of each one, and then making sure you have not found a second or third answer that also works and is also a better answer.

Once you have built up your confidence in the answer you still need to transfer and project that emotion and belief into your client. This is where performance art comes in.

Dress the part

When you are hired as a consultant someone has vouched for you at that firm. They have told their peers that you and your firm are experts. They have committed a likely significant chunk of their budget to bring you in. And with that investment, they have some expectations on what “an expert” looks, sounds and acts like.

You would not show up looking and sounding like the same version of yourself that goes to a kids baseball game on the weekend. You need to look like “Professional Expert” whatever that is to them.

Many new consultants get hung up on this point. If someone is commenting on how you are dressing at the client site, they are not commenting on you or your sense of fashion, but rather telling you what “your character, your role, in this play, at this venue” would wear.

Usually “highly paid consultant” is 1/2 to 1 notch fancier than what they wear on a daily basis. So if they wear a button down and slacks, you might bring a sport coat or jacket. If they wear business casual, you might wear a button down with no tie. and so on. Don’t really out dress them, and make sure your team is all on the same page.

Dress in a way that is inconsistent with “Highly paid expert” and you will suffer a hit to your credibility when you tell them your awesome completely correct answer.

Hit your marks

Similar to dressing that part, you need to hit your marks. And by that I mean every company operates on a different clock. Some places everyone is 5 min late, some places not being on the call already as the hand strikes the hour is a serious faux pas.

Learn how your client works, learn which meeting organizer has what standards and show up when you need to or a tick early.

Know your lines

In your field of expertise, there are specific ways of talking and jargon that you use to figure out who is familiar with your line of work or not.

Likewise, every client industry and technology has some very specific language that you need to master. Not knowing the right word, or using very specific phrases incorrectly will send the wrong signals to your client.

You can survive a misstep every once in a while, but early or frequent misuse of critical words in their context will cast a shadow of doubt on the parts of what you are saying that are your domain of expertise.

Deliver your lines convincingly

If you know your topic, you have done your research, you are confident of the answer, you are using the right phrasing, you are not undermining yourself with subtle “I am not really an expert” tells, you still have to show your belief and emotion and transmit that to your client for them to believe you.

This is the 90% of non-verbal that your speech class talked about:

  • Tone,
  • Pace,
  • Eye Contact,
  • Word Choice,
  • Body Language,
  • Facial Expressions.

All of it. Compare the two versions of the same information:

“I looked at the servers, I saw a couple of things that didn’t look right, made a couple of changes, you should be good to go now”

I said the same words. One should have given you confidence, one should have given you pause.

I have seen many people that fail to make the transition to consulting fail in this step. You have to believe in your answer and transmit that belief in the way that you communicate. A poorly communicated correct answer is actually MORE likely to cause your client to do the EXACT OPPOSITE of what they should do.

Don’t fail in the last mile.

Don’t confuse on stage with backstage

The last point I will make about how consulting is similar to acting and other performance art is that there is an area of your day when you are on stage and performing. But there is also a time and place in your day when you are backstage with your coworkers and teammates. There are rules about what you can and cannot say “in front of the client” or on stage in my analogy.

Don’t air your dirty laundry, bicker or fight in front of the client. Save those real and necessary conversations for backstage or at your own office.

Conclusion

Those are the main things. Consulting is a rewarding and challenging job filled with a lot of great people that make it awesome. Master your technical craft, sure, but also make sure to embrace and master the performance side of the job.

Leave me a comment if you have feedback or questions that I can address in a future post.

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