Book review

The Pyramid Principle

Our clients are often required to summarize a huge amount of information into a compact recommendation or a clear overview. And to do that in a structured and convincing fashion can be quite a challenge – one that not only consultants, but also board members and managers, will be familiar with.

Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. The Pyramid Principle, Barbara Minto’s 1978 book, is a classic in the field of business communication and remains essential reading for professionals everywhere. The book is aimed at helping its readers write and communicate in a structured manner in a business context: how do you present strategic considerations in a coherent and succinct way? What are the tactics you can use to analyze problems, formulate solutions and guide discussions?

If you work in this systematic manner, this will make it much easier to subsequently monitor your results using software. The pyramid principle, then, can be used as a kind of systems engineering for management.


The Pyramid Principle works through a very intuitive structure and three fundamental ground rules:

Rule 1: Ideas at each level of the pyramid must be summaries or logical consequences of the ideas grouped below.

The archetypical Minto-pyramid has three levels, but for the sake of the simplicity of our explanation, we’ll restrict ourselves to two levels here. The same rules presented here apply to pyramids with three or more levels. Regardless, at the top of the pyramid, you’ll find the overarching idea or the most important message you’re trying to communicate.

When Minto speaks of “ideas”, she uses a pretty specific definition. An idea is “a full sentence that 1) presents new information and 2) allows the recipient to ask questions about it.” By presenting ideas in this way, you can ensure that your client won’t end up in a presentation where a number of success factors or goals are discussed, but from which they ultimately depart with a sense of having acquired no new knowledge at all. To formulate an idea, you can use the goal-by-doing framework from the OGSM-method, as we have done in the example above.
 
Next, you’ll support the overaching idea with three (ideally) underlying ideas that support it. Those ideas should be formulated in accordance with the same guidelines as the overarching idea: they should be written down as full sentences which present new information and allow room for questions. The example above shows how you could design a small, two-level pyramid using this approach.

Rule 2: Ideas on the same level should be of the same ‘type’

What Minto means by this is that each level should be a coherent whole. In the example above, you can see that all three ideas at the bottom layer are formulated as arguments to support the conclusion above them. You could say that those arguments answer, respectively, the questions of why, how, and what.

Of course, that isn’t the only model you could apply. But what you should in any case avoid is using different types of ideas within the same level of the pyramid. In our example above, we wouldn’t want to present any alternative possibilities, or problem statements. That would just lead to confusion and stand in the way of effective communication.

Rule 3: Ideas should be presented in a logical order.

The third important rule in applying the pyramid principle is that ideas should be presented in a logical order. That means that the information is shared in such a way that each next argument strengthens the ones presented before them. Let’s take another look at our example:

A client receiving a recommendation, will logically ask themselves the question first of all: why should I follow this advice? We aim to answer that initial question through the first idea on the second level of the pyramid. Next, they may ask themselves: “is it going to work?” or, “how do you know it’s going to work?” – and those questions are answered in Ideas 2 and 3.

Note that you could switch around Ideas 2 and 3 in this example without damaging the effectiveness of your communication: it’d be logical enough to first present a comparable situation where your proposed strategy has worked, and then explain why this approach could also apply to your client’s situation. But it is clear that Idea 1 should come first: before you defend any particular course of action, you will have to convince your client that this approach will contribute to reaching their goals. Only when they are assured of that, will they be able to devote their full attention to your argumentation.

Powerful insights are risky insights

In theory, the pyramid principle is very simple. But the practical application of it remains a daily challenge. That’s especially true when you start working with complex questions and pyramids of three or even more layers. Finding the commonalities between ideas on the same level and formulating the implications and insights behind them can demand a lot of analytic intelligence. And even when you understand the issue perfectly, it is necessary to present your understanding in a rhetorically effective way. Minto warns us for an overly cautious approach: “our organisation has two problems” may be true, but as an insight, it’s much less precise and convincing than something like “outdated processes and conflicts on the workfloor lead to inefficiency that limits our growth.” Minto encourages us to take a little risk when we’re formulating our insights: a strong idea lets you do more than a weak idea, even if it’s more likely to cause ripples in the process.

Bizaline: a full health scan for your organization

When we build goal trees and strategic analyses for our clients, it requires us to have a very clear understanding of the logic that drives a particular organization. Often, when you keep asking questions, you find some ‘zombie projects’ – things that were initiated at some point in the past and, although they don’t fit within a company’s overarching direction (anymore), continue to run as some kind of undead operations. For us at Bizaline, the pyramid principle is an important inspiration and touchstone – a kind of health scan for your organization. Can you defend everything you do in the coherent, succinct way that Barbara Minto teaches us? If you’re curious to explore that question with us, please don’t hesitate to send us an e-mail at info@bizaline.com!

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Antoinette Wieman

Managing Partner

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