As we covered in part one, one of the most important things in this process is to not jump to the finished product. Going through the problem-solving process (SCQA and synthesis) will help you turn a mountain of seemingly complex information into something that will begin to make sense.

The next step is to figure out how to communicate the story to your audience.

Start with the Answer

The default way of using the pyramid principle is to start with the “answer.” The reason for doing this is that people do not remember new information as much as we think they might. We are also at the disadvantage of knowing our material in a deep way and underestimating how challenging some of the new content might be to someone.

Research has shown that people can only hold four “chunks” of information in their working memory at one time. Thinking back to the pyramid principle, if your audience can remember the main takeaway as well as your three key insights, this is probably the best-case scenario.

We’ll explore an alternative approach below. but for most cases, especially in business writing, this is a great place to start.

Write before you PowerPoint

In the first weeks of training at McKinsey, you don’t actually spend time making PowerPoint slides.  You spend time writing.

This is one of the most valuable things I’ve ever done and is one of the first times I realized that you need to separate the thinking from the doing.

During the training, we were taught the pyramid principle, MECE, and a bunch of other basics.  Toward the end of the week, we were given a number of articles and several hours to complete a memo.  Yes, that’s right, writing a memo – like it’s 1980, or 2019 if you work at Amazon. 

After you’ve gone through the synthesis process, you may have a good sense of how your arguments come together in a bottom-up way – how the research leads to certain insights.

However, you’ll want to “flip” that and write down your argument in a top-down way.

How does the argument look when you start with the main takeaway?

Note: Just like in all parts of the consulting process, you may find that when you re-frame your information in a new way, you identify holes and gaps in your thinking. It can be frustrating to realize this when you are deep into the process, but it is never too late to continue to tweak and fine-tune your research, arguments, and findings.

Let’s Write Out A Quick Memo About Strawberries

strawberries

I’m more of a mango fan, but let’s say you are writing a memo to convince people that strawberries are the best fruit. 

Your memo might follow this rough structure.

Overall Recommendation: The strawberry is the best fruit based on its flavor profile, its coloring and texture and the nutritional profile.  (you might add 2-3 other sentences for additional context)

Point 1: Strawberry has the best color

  • Expert evidence, research, interviews, other analysis

Point 2: Strawberries flavor profile offers the best mix of sugar and bitterness of any fruit

  • Expert evidence, research, interviews, other analysis

Point 3: Strawberries offer the most nutrition of any fruit

  • Expert evidence, research, interviews, and other analysis

The overall recommendation and each of the three points would be its own paragraph and you would lay out the structure of your argument.  You want to make sure your ideas are MECE and that they are synthesized clearly in the overall summary.

You can get some good writing templates and more examples of this process in my kick-ass course.

Two Ways To Communicate The Ideas

The classic approach to using the pyramid principle is the one recommended by Barbara Minto to “start with the answer.”  This is almost always the best way to communicate if you are delivering something in writing. If you read the most compelling persuasive essays, they typically start with a powerful thesis detailing what will be discussed.

While this can be most effective for memory and impact, it is not always ideal. Sometimes the audience may not be ready for what you are about to tell them. In that case, you can be more indirect.

Here’s how to think about deploying these two types of storytelling

Direct storytelling where you start with the answer and then follow up with the arguments and supporting evidence is best for:

  • Friendly client situations where there is a high level of trust
  • Impatient clients who are saying “Just tell me what to do!”
  • Big picture / strategic discussions where there has been some initial level of “buy-in” around the proposed recommendations 

Indirect Storytelling is subtler and can be used to ease the audience into accepting your final recommendation if you fear there may be some pushback on your proposed solution.  This is best used for:

When your recommendation may be controversial

  • Hostile audiences
  • Analytical organizations and personalities
  • Audiences who are fascinated by data & not impatient

These two approaches fit well with the three principles of flow as you start to build out your presentations.

Go Deeper

This video is a recap of some of the themes discussed here as well as some additional examples of how to apply top-down thinking to your work.


Do you have a toolkit for business problem solving? I created Think Like a Strategy Consultant as an online course to make the tools of strategy consultants accessible to driven professionals, executives, and consultants. This course teaches you how to synthesize information into compelling insights, structure your information in ways that help you solve problems, and develop presentations that resonate at the C-Level. Click here to learn more or if you are interested in getting started now, enroll in the self-paced version ($497) or hands-on coaching version ($997). Both versions include lifetime access and all future updates.