For any business, effective communication is key to completing projects effectively. However, in many industries, communication is a skill which individuals are expected to simply “pick up” as they go along. This can lead to poor outcomes for everyone involved.
One place where business communication is taken very seriously and where we can look to for best practice is the world of management consulting. As an industry, consulting is renowned for a crisp, clear and above all efficient communication style – one which the workers in other industries will benefit in learning from, regardless of their own specific profession.
When consultants learn about communication, one of the key concepts they are instilled with is Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle.
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What is the Pyramid Principle?
McKinsey and Company employee, Barbara Minto first described her Pyramid Principle in her seminal book of the same name. As a mode of communication, it is sometimes described as the polar opposite of the way information is presented in the academic world which we become familiar with during our education.
When we read an academic work or watch an academic presentation, we are accustomed to something like the following:
- First, we set out any assumptions or simplifications which we might need to make to get started.
- Next, we set out the evidence we have gathered and possibly discuss how this was arrived at. This evidence might be experimental data for a scientist, or an interesting thought experiment or case study for a philosopher
- We then move on to analyse this evidence, working through each step in our reasoning sequentially.
- Finally, we present our conclusions.
- If the research results in any recommendations for changes to our policies or recommendations for action going forward, these are included only at the very end.
We learn these habits in school and university and then bring them into the workplace.
Now, in contrast, the Pyramid Principle turns all this on its head. Whereas academic communication tries to convey as much detail as possible even if this takes longer, consulting-style communication is about getting across the key “so what” immediately and then backing this up.
The idea is that someone like a time-pressed CEO just wants the answer – the “what to do next” – and doesn’t care so much about the “why”. This is typically described as “top down” communication.
As such, communication in line with the pyramid principle will work as follows:
- Conclusion first – start with the key finding and/or recommendation for action.
- Next, give a few main reasons
- Support each of these reasons with a few main data points
- As an add-on, you can then detail any assumptions or simplifications which underly your reasoning
We can visualise this process in the pyramidal diagram below:
How can I use the Pyramid Principle?
So, let’s take a couple of examples, showing the Pyramid Principle in action, first in its home context of management consulting and then in a more generic business environment.
Consultants make use of the pyramid principle both to communicate with one another and particularly in delivering final recommendations to the CEOs of client companies.
You might not be a management consultant and you might not be communicating with the CEOs of major firms, but you should similarly keep the pyramid principle in mind when you are engaged in important communications – especially when you need to speak or compose an email to either your boss or an important client.
Example: The Pyramid Principle in Practice
So, how can you apply this principle in your day to day work? As an example, let’s imagine that something has gone wrong in a project you have been put in charge of. Perhaps a machine has broken, a delivery has not arrived or a client has raised an unexpected issue. You need your boss to authorise your response.
Of course, you first need to figure out the correct response. This might be obvious (we need to have the machine repaired) or might take a bit more thought (we need to change the basis on which we work with the client).
Now, it’s time to inform your boss. Unless they have time on their hands and fancy reading a novel, they will not thank you for a long narrative which they have to wade through to get to the point. For example you might be tempted to send something like the following:
“I came onto the production line this morning to discover that machine five was broken and had been offline since 6am. On inspection, it became apparent that its drum had failed in two places and is not repairable by our engineer on-site.
This is a major problem because we need to pass everything through machine five – meaning that production has more or less stopped. We will need to get machine five up and running as quickly as possible to get back to production, so I would ask for your permission to purchase the parts required.”
This might sound reasonably professional, but your boss will always prefer something “top down”, which tells them what they need to know and do and then provides essential context if they care to read that far. For example:
“With your permission, we need to order a new drum for machine five.
Currently, the machine is non-functional and is causing a bottleneck in the production line.
The drum is too badly damaged to be repaired in-house.
The situation has been ongoing since 6am this morning, more-or-less ceasing production.”
Now, this second version might seem a little robotic or cold if you are not used to this way of doing things, but it is a lot more useful to your boss. You always need to remember that for emails especially, your message will be one of dozens in an inbox.
This style is easy to read and clearly signals what needs to happen next. In short, if you want to be effective and get things done, this is the way to communicate. At the end of the day, this kind of efficiency is what is going to make you a really valued employee.
Hopefully, this quick primer on the Pyramid Principle will help you profitably import this management consulting concept into your own professional life. Certainly, many workers find keeping this rule in mind both in text and speech allows their communication to be greatly enhanced, whatever their own job might be.