When Young People Don’t Communicate Well, It’s Because You Didn’t Teach Them

We’ve all heard the conventional wisdom that says if you want to advance in your career, then you have to work hard.

Except, that’s only partially true.

In the consulting world, everyone works their tails off for their firms and their clients. Everyone is hustling to deliver value and meet their billable targets, while also contributing to firm building activities.

If you want to move up the ranks from Analyst to Consulting to Manager and eventually Partner, then you need to master a critical skill: the ability to communicate more information, more clearly, in a limited amount of time.

As consultants, we have a very short period, perhaps ten minutes, maybe only five, to convey an impactful message or insight to the busy executives who hire us to solve their most vexing problems.

If we fail to get right to the point, we risk them losing interest or becoming distracted with another priority. Yes, a presentation may last a lot longer, but you don’t have much time to get — and keep — client’s attention. In the end, it all comes down to whether we can effectively and succinctly explain our ideas to our clients, and engage them on a deeper level.

Writing or telling a good story to your audience isn’t just about the topic. Relating to the way people think, the way the brain actually works, is a major success factor. People will lose attention if a story is unstructured, and that actually happens a lot. By applying The Pyramid Principle your story will be structured and people will stay focused.

What Is The Pyramid Principle?

One of the best, yet relatively unknown tools to help you hold the attention of executives (or any audience) is The Pyramid Principle.

The Pyramid Principle was created by Barbara Minto, who headed training for McKinsey & Company back in the ’70s. Barbara was the best at getting all the new recruits to go from hot-shot, straight-from-campus hires to expert consultants in the shortest amount of time.

She took principles of logic and structured thinking dating back to the classical Greek philosophers and applied them to the messy and fast-paced world of modern business. In short, Critical Thinking meets Crossing the Chasm.

Barbara did it by employing a principle that could take large amounts of information and structure it to simplify the story yet retain the detail. How often have you had to decide between unloading a ton of content or dumbing down the message to communicate it quickly?

The Pyramid Principle allows you to have your cake and eat it, too — all the content, and easily digestible. How is this possible?

By focusing on the key actionable point, or the “bottom line,” and supporting it through the underlying arguments and data, Barbara was able to teach her students to get straight to the point, provide the most important information, and also the convincing detail.

That’s what The Pyramid Principle is at its core: a principle that allows you to quickly seize your audience’s attention and communicate with gravitas, by creating a compelling story that is easy to understand and remember.

How You Can Use The Pyramid Principle To Convince Anyone

The Pyramid Principle has a four-part introductory structure:

  1. Situation
  2. Complication
  3. Question
  4. Answer

You start with knowing your audience. Then you arrange the information in a way that your audience can rapidly process.

Think about the introduction to a story:

Good stories don’t just dump information on their audiences, they begin by crisply describing a situation, creating a mental picture in the mind of the audience.

Like any good story, you introduce a complication to highlight the conflict, the problem or opportunity that affects the situation. Then a question is posed to highlight the decision at hand, the moment of truth for the individual or company. The answer or recommendation is then provided as the resolution, the (hopefully) happy ending to the story.

Let’s pretend a shoe company (which I’ll refer to as Hot Fire Shoes) hired you as a consultant. Here’s what your Pyramid Principle-driven presentation intro might look like:

Situation

“For years, Hot Fire Shoes has shown a steady increase in yearly revenue.”

You’ve established your familiarity with their company, established a positive atmosphere, and set the stage for your story.

Complication

“This quarter, Hot Fire Shoes’ revenue unexpectedly flat lined for the first time in company history.”

You’ve made the dilemma immediately clear to everyone in the room. This creates a sense of urgency, compelling the executive to listen and possibly act, based on your upcoming ideas. In short, you’ve grabbed their attention.

Question

“How can we increase revenue for Hot Fire Shoes?”

You’ve started a question and answer dialogue (drawn from ancient techniques, like the Socratic Method). In The Pyramid Principle, the question extends logically from the complication, which keeps the overarching problem mentally straightforward and easier to follow.

Note that the question above is over simplified — in practice, a good question is often more subtle and the result of analysis to ensure the right question is asked.

Answer

The next piece, the answer, is crucial — not a monolithic, all-encompassing answer, nor a long disorganized list of details. The question you raise needs to have answers that are mutually exclusive and completely exhaustive, otherwise known in consulting and strategy lingo as MECE.

This is an important concept, as mutually exclusive means that each component is distinct, there is no overlap, and that you can address each part on its own without worrying about the other components. Completely exhaustive, in that the list is complete, and not missing any relevant items.

As consultants, we need to give our clients answers that are MECE, otherwise we risk confusing them. After all, we often deal in abstract concepts and ambiguous situations, so our output needs to have structured logic and clear communication. Far from being dry or boring, clarity with a little personality tossed in excites senior audiences because it quickly gives them what they need.

For the Hot Fire Shoes example, you can start with a relatively simple answer. To increase profits, you can do two things:

  1. Increase revenues
  2. Decrease costs

Neither option overlaps with the other, so they are mutually exclusive, and there are no major paths to profitability that fall outside of either category, so they are also completely exhaustive.

If your answers aren’t mutually exclusive, the lines become blurred, and clients may become confused and try clarify your logic on the fly. If your answers aren’t completely exhaustive, clients’ minds may wonder what is missing and ask you, “What about these other options?”

At that point you’ve already lost their attention, and whatever momentum you had. Sound like any presentations you’ve seen?

How The Pyramid Principle Makes The Complex Simple

To keep executives focused, you need to craft a coherent story and robust platform for your idea. This means restructuring answers into the right scopes and right descriptions.

If I handed you a list of 25 options, you’d have no chance of making a smart decision. The same is true with your clients. You want to pick three to five options to highlight as answers to the question you’ve presented to them.

Research from George Miller has shown a human being can hold about 7 items in their short-term memory, and for some people it is even less. That is why 3–5 items is the optimal size of components for a given idea.

Personally, I like three to five because that gives you room to be wrong on one or two options. This is something Derek, a true genius who I thought would change the game for my firm, couldn’t grasp.

Derek was quantitatively brilliant, but his comfort zone wouldn’t allow him to offer a client an idea with 3–5 supporting options. Instead, he felt he had to demonstrate his intellect by telling them about all 25 options that might work, in a semi-organized list.

Twenty-five options are way too many choices for busy executives.

What’s nice about The Pyramid Method is that you’re conveying bite size morsels of information that can easily fit on a slide, in a chapter, or in a section of a report that an executive — or functional leader — can quickly absorb.

This is a key tenet of both effective information analysis and communication to your audience.

Never go beyond this range of 3–5 — that’s too much information for your audience to easily hold in short-term memory. Never fear, you can always further dissect an item into another 3–5 components to keep the clarity. Is this a little extra mental work on your part?

You bet. However, it is a small price to pay to increase your impact as a communicator and build your brand and executive gravitas.

Why The Pyramid Principle Is So Effective

One of the reasons The Pyramid Principle is so effective is that it uses vertical relationships.

The vertical relationship is important because it presents an idea, allows the reader to absorb it, and then provides answers and supporting evidence. The top of the pyramid is a statement, with the supporting base of the pyramid ready to provide answers to the questions the statement raises.

Every piece of information on the pyramid base reinforces the tip above it, making the pyramid’s conclusion inescapable to the viewer. And the base of one pyramid can (and often does) become the tip of another, to maintain the ‘rule of 3’ discussed above.

Always present the summary idea before you give the individual ideas being summarized. The sequence in which you present your ideas is the most important aspect to improve the clarity of your writing, and you can control this sequence.

If there is power in the vertical relationships, is there also power in the horizontal relationships? Absolutely, though in a different way. In vertical relationships, the supporting points (the base) need to answer the question raised by the statement above (the tip). For horizontal relationships, the supporting points relate to each other, using either deductive or inductive reasoning.

How The Pyramid Principle Uses Deductive and Inductive Reasoning

Deductive logic, most simply put, takes things you generally assume are true and draws a specific conclusion from them. Here’s an example from this up-and-coming kid named Aristotle:

All men are mortal.

Socrates is a man.

Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Deductive reasoning is often called “top down logic” because you start with statements you already assume are true and work down to specific conclusions. In fact, it appears to be the default mode for most people, because it is easier to construct than inductive reasoning.

It is the most common approach in problem-solving, so people use it to communicate their thinking. However, this is a trap!

It forces the reader to slog through your thinking, when what they really want is the answer — and then the supporting information. There is a better way. If you have to use deductive reasoning in a report, push it way down the pyramid (to later pages), at a lower level, where the reader may be more willing to dive into details.

Inductive reasoning, on the other hand, is often called “bottom-up logic” because the analyst uses specific observations or research to build their case and reach a conclusion. The actual conclusion is stated first, but the thought process begins with distinctive observations. For example:

“Leonardo DiVinci was a true Renaissance Man.” (Why?)

He invented dozens of useful items.

He was a brilliant painter.

His notebooks were filled with insightful comments, well ahead of his time.

Inductive reasoning is much harder to do well than deductive reasoning, because it is more creative and uses both sides of the brain. Think Whole Brain: Critical + Creative Thinking.

To think creatively, you need to develop the skills to define ideas in a grouping, and identify the ones that do not belong. Think of it this way: identify a word that describes the type of ideas in a group, and it will often be a plural noun (in the example above, the plural noun could described as “proof points of DaVinci’s intelligence”).

It is better to state the action or recommendation before the supporting facts (the argument), because the result is what the reader cares about the most — and it holds their attention.

The Pyramid Principle combines the power of these two forms of reasoning — deductive and inductive — to form the most compelling, accessible argument possible.

Your recommendation (or presentation thesis) needs to be explained quickly, and via inductive reasoning:

“We should buy the company because it is likely to increase in value.”

You could also arrive at that conclusion through deductive reasoning:

“Companies with 5x growth rates always increase in value, and this company has a 5x growth rate, therefore it is likely to increase in value”

But this approach requires the reader to follow your chain of thought to the end, making it more risky that they will tune out before you reach the punch line. It also requires each link in your reasoning chain to be strong, else it will break down. Better to make your claim about the company increasing in value, and support it with multiple reasons why it is likely to do so. If one of your points falls flat, your overall conclusion can still remain strong due to the rest of the supporting points.

This is so important it bears repeating: Inductive logic is better, because it helps your reader (audience) comprehend more, faster, and is well worth the extra effort on your part to create it. And since most people do not do this, you will stand out because you do.

Again, think deductively, communicate inductively, and you will rock your communications.

Small caveat…when presenting to engineers, especially very senior ones, it sometimes is useful to weave in a little more deductive reasoning into your communications. They have to “see it to believe it” and typically want to follow your thinking more so than other audiences.

Combining these schools of reasoning in the right way strengthens your argument, and makes it easier to explain your recommendation quickly and with impact.

The Pyramid Principle Sounds Great, But What If I’m Wrong?

Yes, it’s possible your recommendation may be wrong. However, the purpose of the Pyramid Principle isn’t always to convince everyone that you’re right. It’s to lay out your argument in the clearest terms possible, so that listeners can understand your thinking and engage more fully.

If you’re right, it will allow the audience to grasp the idea quickly and easily.

If you’re wrong, it will make your thinking clearer, so that a listener can point out the flaw in your logic and collaboratively provide you constructive feedback.

Another upside to mastering how to craft coherent ideas, is that executives are keenly aware of how hard it is to do what you’ve demonstrated. They’ll want you around, whether as a consultant or in another capacity — don’t be surprised when clients want to hire you.

You see, it’s not just about consulting. It’s about your ability to communicate, with impact. And that’s what consulting really is — applying expertise to solve important, ambiguous problems and communicating in such a way to create value through your recommendations and actions. And have some professional enjoyment along the way.

You still need to hustle, and you still need to hit your targets. But all else being equal, the consultant who advances the fastest is usually the one who knows the value of time, how to deliver value, and tell a succinct story with sound reasoning.