The Pyramid Principle

At McKinsey, one of the lessons I learned was the importance of structured thinking and communication. We often had to crisply present a recommendation to busy executives. Many times, we only had a few minutes to communicate that recommendation — then, if the executive was interested in digging deeper, we could present more details.

One of the tools that we used at McKinsey was the Pyramid Principle, a methodology for structured communication.

The key take-aways from the Pyramid Principle at McKinsey were:

  1. Start with the answer first.
  2. Group and summarize your supporting arguments.
  3. Logically order your supporting ideas.

Start with the answer first.

To communicate in a structured way with a busy executive, you should start with the answer to the executive’s question first, and then list your supporting arguments. This “top-down” structure is counter-intuitive for many of us, especially those with a scientific or engineering background used to writing technical papers. For many people, it’s natural to build up to a conclusion by first reciting all of the facts, recounting all of the analyses that have been done, or reviewing all of the supporting ideas. Then you get to the punch line.

At McKinsey, “start with the answer first” was drilled into us. When an executive asked a question — “What should we do?” — you were to start your response with, “You should do X,” very crisply and directly. Only then, after you have answered the question, should you present your supporting reasons. Why?

First, you want to maximize your time with your audience. Executives are busy people. They are perpetually short on time, are used to processing lots of information quickly, and get impatient when they feel like someone isn’t getting to the point. To get the most out of your short time with an executive, you want to make your recommendation first and foremost. In some cases, the executive may already mentally be at the conclusion you want them to reach, in which case she will accept your recommendation and move on (without you having to go into the detailed supporting arguments).

Second, many executives often think in a “top-down” manner. They want to focus on the big picture—in this case the “answer”— and don’t want to get bogged down by details. By delivering your recommendation in the “answer first” format, you are fitting into the executive’s mental model and allowing them to quickly process your recommendation.

Finally, you are more persuasive when you are direct. By answering the executive’s question first, you sound more assertive and confident. You’re not searching for reasons or words, and you don’t sound like you’re wavering. You are plainly and directly answering the question that was posed to you.

Group and summarize your supporting arguments.

Your audience—whether listeners or readers—will naturally begin to group and summarize your arguments and ideas in order to remember them. So you may as well help them do it and make your overall recommendation more effective and memorable.

The Pyramid Principle advocates that “ideas in writing should always form a pyramid under a single thought.” The single thought is the answer to the executive’s question. Underneath the single thought, you are supposed to group and summarize the next level of supporting ideas and arguments. Then, for each supporting idea or argument, break that further into more ideas or arguments until you have formed a pyramid. The Pyramid Principle teaches that, “Ideas at any level in the pyramid must always be summaries of the ideas grouped below them.”

Decomposing an argument into a pyramid structure

It just so happens that the magic number of ideas in a group is three (see my Rule of 3 post).

When you group and summarize your supporting arguments, it’s easy to go from the single thought to the next level of ideas without getting too detailed right away.

Logically order your supporting ideas.

Finally, you want to ensure that the ideas you bring together under each group actually belong together, are at the same level of importance, and follow some logical structure. There are a few different ways of logically ordering ideas that belong in the same group:

  1. Time order: if there is a sequence of events that form a cause-effect relationship, you should present the ideas in time order.
  2. Structural order: break a singular thought into its parts, ensuring that you have covered all of the major supporting ideas.
  3. Degree order: present supporting ideas in rank order of importance, most to least important.

When combined with the Rule of 3, the Pyramid Principle becomes an extremely powerful structured communication tool for making recommendations to busy executives. I saw many examples during my time at McKinsey when the Pyramid Principle was invoked in written and verbal communication to successfully motivate action.

The Pyramid Principle is not just valuable for communicating with executives, but really it’s effective to communicate with anyone whom you wish to persuade with argument. As an entrepreneur, the tool could be what you use to communicate with prospective investors or board members. As a leader in an organization, you can use the Pyramid Principle to communicate with peers or project stakeholders when you make an important proposal.

If you’re interested in learning more, definitely pick up the original book by Barbara Minto. I would urge you to try out the Pyramid Principle when writing your next proposal, making your next elevator pitch to an investor, or even the next time you respond to an executive’s question. I bet that you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.