The Importance of Being Precise

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In the last month of constant communication with managers, associates and fellow analysts, I have come to realize that it is definitely worth it to make the effort to be as precise as humanly possible during daily communication. Especially in a field that is so focused on collaboration and team work, one of the things that makes it truly enjoyable to work with someone is that person's effort to spend little time on explanations and directions. It is impossible to escape them completely, but it is nice to cut them down to the bare minimum.

A good portion of my work consists of creating complicated spreadsheet models with 20 tabs that all link to each other in some way. This means that, when I pass off my work to someone else, it becomes a maze of VLookup(), Match() and Index() formulas that can generate an anxiety attack in even the most experienced analysts. In order to prevent unnecessary trips to the doctor, it is imperative to be able to explain the reasoning behind your spreadsheet models, behind their "architecture" and your reasoning in general. This is where preciseness comes in.

Before I send that email or make that phone call, I usually take about five minutes to go over what I did in my head and remember the big picture. When I gather my thoughts, "column L" becomes "monthly interest payment" and "I multiply columns B and C to get the index" become "I multiply the daily stock price returns of the companies in the index by their corresponding daily market caps and sum them to get the value-weighted industry index." This is a simple example, but if I apply this effort in reasoning and explanations to all my work, I simplify life for many people. It is much easier to understand the latter sentences in each pair and it saves the other person a lot of time by laying out all information to them upfront. And as an analyst, it is my job to simplify my managers' lives.

It definitely takes a greater expenditure of brainpower to do this (...than to not even make this effort...), but it is good practice to develop this skill early on. I cannot imagine a situation when precise language will not come in handy (e.g. even if you need to conceal something, it will be easier to do if you can clearly formulate your thoughts). And even at this level, your managers will notice, your brain will develop more connections among its neurons and people will like to work with you. I know I am always excited when I get a call from such people.