Where’s the “So What?”

In the 1950s TV show “Dragnet,” any time a witness added her own interpretation to the events that she had observed, the detective Joe Friday would quickly say, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

This catchphrase—“Just the facts, ma’am”—was the exact opposite of what they taught us at McKinsey.

McKinsey’s clients were senior executives at large companies. These executives were smart, busy, and impatient, which means that they didn’t want just the facts. They brought in McKinsey to provide analysis and insights, not to summarize facts. If we wanted to be a trusted, insightful advisor to CEOs and senior executives, we needed to synthesize, not summarize. Anyone can summarize — synthesis is much more valuable. Synthesis = summary + insight.

In practice, this core principle – synthesize, don’t summarize – led to a frequently used maxim at McKinsey: “Where’s the ‘So What?’”

The question we should always be asking ourselves whenever we presented anything to a client was, “So what?” What is the implication of what we had found from our analysis? What is the data actually telling us? Why should our client care about what we have to say?

The concept was so fundamental to our work, that I regularly heard partners ask, “Where’s the ‘So what?’” as they reviewed a slide deck that was going to be presented to a client. As a new consultant, with every slide you created, you began to think about what the key take-away or implication was to the client.

Lets consider an example. Suppose I analyzed a company’s sales data from the previous quarter. After reviewing the data, I told you:

“50% of deals that reached the contract stage typically closed.”

This is an effective summary of the data, but... So what? Is this good or bad? Is it surprising or expected? What does it mean?

Now what if, instead of just summarizing the data like I did above, I told you:

“50% of deals that reach the contract stage typically closed. This is pretty concerning, because it’s down from our historical average of 60% close rate. We think there may be two reasons for the decrease: (1) lower sales team productivity, and (2) higher loss rates to our competitor. We need to address this problem quickly, because if we don’t, we’re going to lose market share quickly.”

Clearly the second answer provides more value and meaning, conveys a deeper understanding of the data and the problem, and builds more confidence with the audience.

In order to make sure that you are always highlighting the “So what?” when you synthesize data, use the following three tips:

  1. What’s the most important take-away?

The first thing you want to be able to communicate from your analysis is the key take-away. In the above sales data example, the key take-away is that “this is pretty concerning, because it’s down from our historical average.”

Some questions that will help you uncover that key take-away:

  • Are these results directionally good or bad?
  • Are the results expected or unexpected?
  • How do the results compare to benchmarks (historical, industry-wide, etc.)?

2. What are the root causes?

In addition to highlighting the key take-away, we were often encouraged to anticipate the senior executive’s next question. One of the next questions was almost always, “What happened? Why are we seeing these results?”

This would often lead us to share our hypotheses for the underlying causes behind the results we saw. In the above example, by offering two hypotheses for why we are seeing lower sales performance, we have anticipated the “What happened?” question. And we have given another reason for the executive to listen to what we have to say.

3. What’s the implication?

The final tip for providing a “So what?” is to draw a picture about what the implications of the findings are. What happens if this trend continues? What does this finding mean to the company’s strategic goals and prospects? What does it tell you about the company’s key business assumptions?

In the above sales data example, the implication is that if we don’t address the problem, “we’re going to lose market share quickly.”

I have found the “So what?” principle incredibly helpful in my work, even beyond McKinsey—as an entrepreneur, as a product manager, and as a business professional that frequently has to synthesize data and make recommendations.

By asking yourself, “Where’s the ‘So what?’”, you will make sure that you are providing insight and synthesis, rather than just summarizing data. By trying to anticipate your audience’s next question, you will always seem like you are one step ahead. And by discussing the implications of your findings, you create the motivation for your listeners to act. Try it out next time you write an email, prepare a slide deck, or draft a proposal. Ask yourself, “Where’s the ‘So what?’” I guarantee that your email, presentation, or proposal will be all the better for it.

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