Barbara Minto’s The Pyramid Principle has been one of the most influential books for business writing. It has sold millions of copies and shaped the nature of work done at the top consulting firms, especially McKinsey & Company, where she first popularized her ideas.
Overall I find both Minto and her ideas compelling. The Pyramid Principle is a book that is equal parts wonky, technical, playful, and deep. This is great for me, as I love that kind of book and it’s helped me reflect on my experience at McKinsey and my attempts to figure out why I was able to develop such strong capabilities there. Unfortunately, because of how technical the book is, it remains bought but unread on many people’s bookshelves as they’ve told me.
In my work at StrategyU, I’ve tried to remix and highlight some of Minto’s best ideas as part of my mission to democratize the approaches to doing great work taught at firms like McKinsey, Bain, and BCG.
As part of this, I’ve decided to do an in-depth review of her book while also adding my own commentary and reflections on some of the ideas based on my own experience working in consulting and teaching these skills to people all over the world.
This review is the first of four on her latest edition, republished in 2010. I will cover each of the four sections of her book:
- Logic In Writing
- Logic In Thinking
- Logic in Problem-Solving (coming soon)
- Logic In Presentation (coming soon)
Introduction To Barbara Minto
Minto’s first job in the business world was working for Cyrus Eaton, who founded the Pugwash Conferences of nuclear scientists. The goal of the Pugwash Conferences was to lower the risk of nuclear war and other weapons of mass destruction. Given the stakes, it’s not surprising that the importance of clear communication became such an important thing to Minto throughout her life.
She didn’t spend long at Pugwash and in 1961 decided to enroll at Harvard Business School for her MBA. At the time, her class was only the second one that allowed women to enroll.
At the end of those two years, she decided to join McKinsey & Company in 1963 as their first female consultant. While she only ended up spending slightly over ten years at the firm, you could make a case that she is one of the most influential people to have worked at the firm, with only Marvin Bower giving her serious competition.
Upon joining the firm, Minto quickly stood out for her writing and became one of the go-to people to help people across the firm. When she moved to Europe in 1966 to help the European teams improve their writing, she saw that the challenges to communicating clearly were not an American issue but a human one.
“Get The Thinking Clear”
If there is one takeaway from Minto’s work that has influenced me the most, it’s the idea that to communicate better, you should not focus on getting the words right, but rather on improving how you think.
This is similar to my principle of “Think Before You PowerPoint,” which is really about acknowledging that if you want to make better slides, you shouldn’t try to make better slides in PowerPoint. Instead, you need to develop a better process for synthesizing and structuring information. Essentially, creating space to think before you PowerPoint. This is even more important in the digital age where you don’t actually have to go to a different space like a library to find information. You can simply copy-paste information from one app to another and it can feel like you are adding context to the information.
In the book, Minto argues that there are two causes of bad writing:
- “Weaknesses Of Style”: She found the highly educated people she worked with fell into the trap of using fancy and overly-technical terms and noted that “it is notoriously difficult for a person who has completed the formal part of his education to change his writing style”
- Lack of structure & alignment with reader’s expectations: “If a person’s writing is unclear, it is most likely because the ordering of the ideas conflicts with the capability of the reader’s mind to process them.”
When she first started working at McKinsey, she noted that many people would offer the feedback “write more clearly” but not provide any further clarification about what that meant, and because of this, no one really seemed to improve how they wrote or communicated.
This drove her throughout her career.
Evaluating Minto’s Fundamental Claims
Minto makes a bold claim at the beginning of the book as a foundation for her ideas:
The mind automatically sorts information into distinctive pyramidal groupings in order to comprehend it.Barbara Minto
I find this a fascinating claim but couldn’t find any evidence to support it. I also wish it were true. If people had a natural ability to see things in pyramids, I would have an easier time coaching people on how to communicate more effectively and would not see such wide differences in people’s natural tendencies. However, I’d guess that Minto does see pyramids in information and is better at seeing the big picture than most people. This is great as you’d have to be very strong at such things to write a 200+ page book about structuring ideas!
I’m guessing a lot of the “proof” offered in the early section was added to lend academic credibility to her ideas. If I were to make a claim I’d be willing to bet on, I’d reframe it: “information sorted into a pyramidal structure makes it easier to understand,” which is more or less the central argument that runs through the course of the book and what has led her ideas to be used and spread broadly across the world.
The second claim Minto makes is that the pyramid structure aligns perfectly with research from psychology that people can hold seven things in their brain, plus or minus two. The idea comes from a famous paper by George A. Miller titled, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” published in 1956. While the title was catchy, many people have challenged the idea that most people can remember seven things in their minds. The consensus now is that people can probably remember about four “chunks” that actually align better with Minto’s pyramid structured around one main idea and three key points.
Finally, in interviews, she has given credit to Artistotle and in the book, she cites his books The Organon and Rhetoric. However, after diving into each of those sources, I’d say this was another attempt at adding institutional credibility to her ideas.
The best thing about Minto’s ideas is that I don’t actually think they needed any of this backward-looking proof. From years of working in consulting and coaching, I’ve seen over and over again the magical effects of people using Minto’s ideas in how they structure, organize and communicate their ideas.
Which is another way of declaring my biases before going deeper into the book.
The Pyramid – Top-Down & Bottom-Up
Minto’s pyramid idea is easiest understood visually:
As you can see the pyramid is a hierarchy of information. The lowest level is made up of individual pieces of information. These are sentences containing information, data points, quotes, or things like transcripts from interviews. As you move up the pyramid, the information becomes “key ideas” which are abstracted and simplified summaries of the below information. The “main idea” is an abstract summary of the three key points. As you move up the pyramid, ideas should become more clear and easily understood by another person.
Minto argues that the whole point of communication is to “tell people what they don’t know.” To do this she proposes that one communicate top-down, starting with the main idea first. You start with the highest-level idea because that will also be the thing that inspires the most curiosity or according to Minto, “invokes a question because it is something new.” It should be something that makes one want to learn more and make their way down to the lower levels of the pyramid. As she writes:
“You must recognize that a reader, no matter how intelligent he is, has only a limited amount of mental energy available to him. Some of it will be used up just recognizing and interpreting the words, a further amount seeing the relationships between the ideas, and whatever is left comprehending their significance.”
An example she gives of this is of someone going to the grocery store and trying to remember to get a list of ten items. Remembering these ten is likely very hard but if you create three groups – fruit, veggies, and bakery items for example – it’s easier to remember those three things, and then when in those sections try to remember the specific items you wanted.
In order to generate the “key ideas,” you need to build the pyramid in a bottom-up way. She calls this “thinking from the bottom-up” and suggests three simple rules:
- Ideas in each grouping must always be the same kind of Idea
- Ideas at any level in the pyramid must always be summaries of the ideas grouped below them
- Ideas in each grouping must always be logically ordered
These principles seem straightforward but take a bit of time and practice to master. I call this kind of bottom-up processing of information “synthesis,” and the best way to improve quickly is to get feedback from someone that is good at this kind of thing. Coming up with key ideas that summarize and include detailed information while also being easier to understand than that information takes more practice than you would expect.
Minto’s third rule, that the ideas should be logically ordered, is also quite important and deserves its own section,
How To Order Ideas Logically
Minto takes structuring ideas in a logical way seriously. In fact, she argues that presenting ideas in an illogical way is “bad manners”:
“To sequence them instead so that the mind has to go backward and forward to make connections is simply bad manners, and most readers react by refusing to do so.”
This is probably one of the hardest to understand concepts because most of the time if your presentation of ideas is ineffective, no one will tell you. Especially in business environments, most people have mastered the skill of sitting through a bad presentation and not saying anything. Further, even if they did tell you, they wouldn’t be able to give you specific actionable feedback to help you improve. This is what made working in consulting so different. I got this kind of feedback all the time and you’d probably be surprised at how much time I spent thinking about structuring and ordering ideas in my writing, speaking, and presenting.
Minto presents five options for ordering ideas:
- Chronologically: present ideas in order of how they happened
- Structurally: Present ideas in their natural groups (e.g. Geographical regions, divisions of a company)
- Comparatively: In the order of importance (1st most important, 2nd most…)
- Deductive: Each point builds upon the last to make the argument
- Inductive: Independent points that all make the same conclusion
Deductive and inductive logic are the two most important types of reasoning you will use in business writing and communication.
If you are new to this kind of thing you’ll want to start with inductive logic. This is because each individual key idea will support the main idea and if someone challenges and disproves one of your key ideas, the main idea will still be backed up by other arguments. This is in contrast to deductive logic where each of your arguments build upon each other. So as you see in the below argument, if the second key idea is debunked, it undermines the entire argument.
This does not mean avoiding deductive logic. I have seen this used effectively in consulting but it usually depends on making sure that the client or audience will agree with your assessment of the current situation and the points you are making. The best way to do this is usually to literally show them the arguments you will make ahead of time and to get them to offer feedback on the specific language you will use.
Using SCQA To Define Problems
Minto puts an emphasis on understanding the situation and context of the issue you are writing about. This is similar to what I experienced at McKinsey and one of the biggest ways to improve your writing or business problem solving is simply to spend way more time understanding the current state or issues than you are used to.
Her preferred approach to do this is to use the SCQA approach: Situation, Complication, Question, and Answer. She argues that this “permits you to make sure you and the reader are standing in the same place before you take him by the hand and lead him through your thinking.”
The introduction should simply be the answer to the highest level question you seek to answer and the best way to do this is to state facts that your audience will agree with. Once you’ve done this, you can propose a question and then start to answer it.
Minto believes that most documents answer four questions:
- What should we do?
- How do we implement it?
- Is this the right way forward?
- Why Did It Happen
One big mistake that I see people make over and over again, especially in PowerPoint presentations is that they just have a section titled “background,” which contains a bunch of information not structured around a central question or issue. Minto makes a good case for why this kind of thing should be avoided:
“As a rule of thumb, you never want to have a section labeled “Background” or “Introduction” because the information it contains will not be on the same level of abstraction as the other points that follow. And in listing subjects rather than ideas, there is a danger that the ideas assumed to be behind the subjects will probably not form a clear argument, either inductive or deductive.”
The most important thing you are doing with written communication, especially at the beginning, is onboarding your audience onto your worldview. With this in mind, you want to be careful and Minto suggests that this is why you should “remind, rather than inform.” Once you have them agree with your perspective, you can then make a strong argument.
However, every case is different and she provides different approaches depending on the tone you are trying to set. The two most common approaches are the ones I typically advise people to use, the direct and indirect approaches.
- Direct: solution, situation, complication
- Indirect: situation, complication, solution
Two additional approaches I’ve seen less used but can be effective if there is strong existing alignment between you and the audience you are trying to persuade
- Concerned: complication, situation, solution
- Aggressive: question, situation, complication
Five Tips For Beginners
In this first section, Minto offers several tips for beginners. I’ve added my own reflections on them below:
- Try “top-down” first: This is probably the one I don’t fully agree with. I’ve had plenty of success personally and have seen many people take a bottom-up approach first before shifting to the top-down mode trying to figure out the key themes and messages. I’d say start with the one you are most naturally drawn to but make sure you shift back and forth, especially at the beginning.
- Use the situation as the starting point for the introduction: One habit I picked up from consulting was to always define the situation or problem at the beginning of anything I’m writing or creating. This is helpful because you can start with known information that your audience will likely agree with rather than new information you hope to introduce.
- Add chronology in the introduction: In writing proposals for clients, I typically give some context of the company and/or the team. For example, in a recent pitch to a small consulting firm I wrote “Over the last two years, the team has grown rapidly driven by increasing client opportunities.”
- Focus on writing things that the reader would agree with: When I pitch to clients, I typically restate what they have told me in my own words and use it as a jumping-off point for framing the potential solution (my services) in a way that would align with the situation and complication.
Finally An Example:
To highlight this approach here is an example introduction I wrote
The (CLIENT) strategy team has around ## highly capable team members. Some come from traditional consulting or other consulting backgrounds but many do not. There is an opportunity to invest in skill building and culture building around consulting problem-solving. You identified two core areas where the team could improve:
- Storytelling & Communications: turning insights, data, and information into actionable information for “client” executives across different departments in addition to the underlying scoping, interviewing & structuring skills needed to manage these relationships
- Shared Language & Culture: Developing a shared understanding of tools, frameworks, and principles that have the opportunity to evolve into a “CLIENT Way” of approaching problems across the business. This would help improve the quality of feedback and capabilities across the team.
From this you can see the following:
- Situation: I give hard facts in the first sentence that the client would agree with and then some context on the backgrounds of the team members.
- Complication: I acknowledge the capability gap of the current team
- Question: The question is not explicitly in the introduction but “what should we do?” is implied by my two-part proposal
- Answer: I propose that the right way forward is to focus on two things: Storytelling and Communication and Shared Language & Culture
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