Have you ever read a document and wondered “what’s the point?” How often have you given up reading an email because it’s too long?
Many people write poorly. They write long messages that are unclear. You don’t have to be one of them! If you’d like to write clearly and concisely, there’s help: The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto.
Barbara Minto explains that writers should organize thoughts in a pyramid format, which gives structure to the ideas. She explains how this technique makes it easier for readers to understand the meaning; the brain naturally tries to make sense of new concepts in this way. By organizing ideas in a pyramid, writers do the hard work of figuring out the meaning and drawing conclusions and then write by putting the main ideas first. The readers then simply need to follow the clear logic and flow.
The Pyramid Principle contains detailed explanations and examples of how to create your own pyramids to make your writing clear.
Order Your Ideas
“Controlling the sequence in which you present your ideas is the single most important act necessary to clear writing.”
The Pyramid Principle, page 9
Your reader can only take in one sentence at a time. Therefore, you must think carefully about how to present the ideas in a logical sequence. To do this, it helps to separate the thinking process from the writing process.
Imagine you are sitting at your desk and you get the following email from one of your team members:
“I’ve been working on that report you wanted by Friday. I’ve realized that I’m missing some information. Bob has the figures I need but he’s not going to be back in the office until Monday. Also, I’d like to get Janine’s feedback as she has interviewed clients in a focus group and the summary will be available by Wednesday next week. If I include all of that information in the report, I’ll have it ready by Thursday next week at the earliest. Is that okay with you?”
Your team member has used the process of writing the email as a way to think through what he is trying to say. You have to read through to the end to get the meaning – the report won’t be available until next Thursday.
If he had taken a moment to think it through, the email might have read as follows:
“With your permission, I’d like to send you the report on Thursday of next week, instead of this week on Friday. This will allow me time to include figures from Bob and the results of the focus group from Janine.”
The point of the email becomes clear from the beginning, with a brief explanation to follow.
Plan Your Pyramid
“The clearest sequence is always to give the summarizing idea before you give the individual ideas being summarized.”
The Pyramid Principle, page 9
By giving the summarizing idea first, we are using top-down communication and giving our readers the main message first. The main message is represented visually by the top of the pyramid and the key points and details that follow form the middle and base of the pyramid.
To create the pyramid, use the following steps:
1. Make a list of the main points
2. Work out the relationships between those points
3. Draw conclusions
To illustrate with an example: I was recently speaking with a colleague and a prospective client. The client was interested in booking a course with us; however their requirements meant we needed to offer something unique.
I followed the three steps as follows:
1. My main points included the needs of the client and how that was different to our current offer
2. The relationship between those points was the customization required to meet the client needs
3. My conclusion was that our proposal to the client would need to cover our existing services and customization work
After I followed the three steps above, I sent an email to my colleague with this main message: “In order to meet the client’s needs, our proposal should include the course, customization and follow-up coaching.” The rest of my message then went more into more detail on what the proposal would include.
Introduce Your Idea
“A good introduction does more than simply gain and hold the reader’s interest. It influences his perceptions.”
The Pyramid Principle, page 49
Minto proposes the following structure for your introduction: Situation, Complication, Question and Answer.
Situation – something everyone can agree on.
Complication – something that has changed, or a challenge or development.
Question – the question that naturally arises following the complication.
Answer – usually, your main message.
Here’s an example of the introduction that I might use when sharing my ideas for the client proposal with my colleague:
Situation: In our call earlier today, the client shared their objectives for the work.
Complication: The client’s needs don’t match with our usual offering.
Question: How can we meet the client’s needs?
Answer: We need to create a multi-faceted proposal for our client, covering the course, customization and follow-up coaching.
By starting with the Situation, you create the context for what follows. You also get alignment as the reader will recognize that what you say is true. Then you follow with the Complication. Your reader clearly follows your train of thought. The Question is not necessarily written, sometimes it is implied. In the example above, I may go straight from Complication to Answer, such as “In order to meet the client’s needs, we need to create a multi-faceted proposal including the course, customization and follow-up coaching.”
The Pyramid Principle provides a framework for clear and logical writing. By applying the ideas in this book, you’ll make your writing easier for your readers to understand and remember.
In the comments below, let us kn ow…
What challenges do you face when writing? How might adding a pyramid structure help you to be understood?