Nutshell: Bottom-up; top-down: structuring communications with The Pyramid Principle

Written by
Future Talent Learning

01 Jul 2020

01 Jul 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle can help us to marshal our ideas and to communicate them clearly and convincingly.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of communications at work that tend to obscure rather than clarify: that long report with no clear purpose or recommendation; a big announcement that left everyone unsure about what might happen next; sales pitches that make us wonder how that person ever manages to sell anything.

Communications that fail to hit the mark often suffer from the same underlying problem: the fact that marshalling and communicating information in a coherent and persuasive way can be hard. Sometimes it’s about not being able to see the wood for the trees. And even when we can see a way through, we might not be able to communicate it convincingly.

It was a problem identified back in the 1960s and 1970s by Barbara Minto, who at the time was one of the first female partners at management consultants McKinsey. Whether in the US or Europe, she kept seeing reports crossing her desk that jumbled up the information they were presenting, mixing up findings and conclusions, with neither of them leading in a clear way to recommendations.

“The problem was the thinking, not the language,” she says. “People were starting to write without working out their thinking in advance. But how does one go about figuring out one’s thinking in advance?”

When editing those reports – as well as researching what others had said about the structure of thought – Minto noticed that she always seemed to be reorganising the ideas in the reports into a pyramid shape. “I saw it meant there were only three logical rules to obey,” she says. “The point above has to be a summary of those below, because it is derived from them. You can’t derive an idea from a grouping unless the ideas in the grouping are logically the same, and in logical order.”

So was born Minto’s classic Pyramid Principle, a deceptively simple tool designed, as Minto says, “to help you find out what you think”. It’s a technique that can be deployed in the service of a range of persuasive communication, whether we’re writing or speaking. It’s a way of making sense of the detail to make a convincing case without losing sight of the outcome we need or the big picture.

The two components of the pyramid

The Pyramid Principle helps us to set out even complex ideas in the clearest terms by inviting us to work through a two-part process.

Our first task is to synthesise and structure our argument. This requires a bottom-up approach.

That means gathering relevant information and data. If we’re looking to expand into a new market, for example, we’ll need everything we can muster about that market and the companies that already operate there. Then we can start sorting this material into more coherent groups of ideas or insights. That might involve discarding less relevant or extraneous material. As we start grouping the data, common themes will start to emerge – and our main idea, insight or recommendation might also start to become clearer.

This is also where another of Minto’s key concepts comes in: MECE, the rule that ideas or groups of ideas should be “mutually exclusive and completely exhaustive”.

MECE is often explained by asking us to try to memorise nine grocery items on a shopping list in, say, 10 seconds:

  1. Bread
  2. Blueberries
  3. Steak
  4. Grapes
  5. Bagels
  6. Chicken
  7. Muffins
  8. Apples
  9. Lamb

That might not be easy, but, using MECE, we can organise the items into groups, such as:

Bakery Items: Bread, Bagels, Muffins

Meat: Steak, Chicken, Lamb

Fresh Fruit: Blueberries, Grapes, Apples

These three groups are distinctly different and separate: they are mutually exclusive (MECE). The grouping also covers all nine items in the original list, so the grouping is collectively exhaustive too (MECE). By sorting and grouping the items in this way – taking detailed information and summarising it into a higher-level category – we’re effectively synthesising the information we have and simplifying data or information into a smaller set of ideas. Ultimately, taking this approach will lead us to the core, synthesised idea that, in this case, these are the things we need to buy next time we visit the supermarket – and that’s a much easier message to understand and communicate.

Communicating top-down

Through this process of sorting, synthesising and structuring, we can structure our data, insights and arguments into Minto’s pyramid, forming a hierarchy that supports the big idea, outcome or goal. Ideas at any level in the pyramid must always be summaries of the ideas grouped below them.

With the pyramid structure in place, we’re ready to communicate that idea. At this stage, Minto’s methodology moves back down the pyramid with a top-down structure that inverts the more traditional or indirect structures that present facts before arriving at a conclusion:

  1. Start with the answer or actionable point. This cuts to the chase, providing the key idea, recommendation or takeaway at the outset, when our audiences are giving us their most focused attention. Our introduction will briefly describe the situation and question to be addressed and provide a solution. Because we are being direct, we have more of a chance of sounding confident and assertive (channelling our gravitas).
  2. Summarise the supporting arguments. These are the details we’ll already have sorted and summarised into the pyramid, bearing in mind the MECE principle. Minto suggests having three supporting arguments for our answer or key idea, breaking these down further until we get to the bottom of the pyramid.
  3. Order supporting ideas logically. Finally, we can order these ideas logically, by time order (if there is a sequence of events that form a cause–effect relationship), by structural order, or in order of importance. Together, these arguments create a storyline that leads us to conclude that our answer is true.

For Minto, “Extended thinking eventually ends in a single pyramid of ideas, at many levels, obeying logical rules, and held together by a single thought. Communicating the thinking requires only that you guide the reader [or listeners] down the pyramid.”

In practice, we can see how The Pyramid Principle might help us to sharpen our arguments and communicate better – even help us to solve problems. The technique applies to any form of communication where we need to offer our thinking to a reader or an audience. It works equally for internal or external audiences. Think, for example, of a report with an executive summary or recommendation at the beginning, followed by a logical series of supporting arguments, each in turn supported by the right data and information. Or a presentation that starts with a big bang idea to grab our attention and then tells us via a clear and well-paced story why that idea is genius.

There are times, of course, when this direct approach might not be appropriate, perhaps when we might be facing a potentially hostile audience or we want to take a more collaborative approach to test out thinking that is less fully formed. Nevertheless, Barbara Minto’s pyramid remains a useful framework for writing and presenting ideas.

One thing is less clear-cut, though: how to pronounce MECE. For Minto, it should rhyme with “niece” or “Greece”, and, as she says, “I invented it, so I get to say how to pronounce it”, although she accepts that the idea – if not the acronym – originally came from Aristotle’s Rhetoric. And if it was good enough for Aristotle…


Test your understanding

  • Outline the two stages of The Pyramid Principle process.
  • Identify two reasons why the top-down approach to communication might be more effective.

What does it mean for you?

  • Try using The Pyramid Principle to structure an upcoming report or presentation. Consider how you’ll work bottom-up to marshal your argument and then top-down to plan the communication.


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