The Pyramid Principle Book Review


Today, we take a quick dive in to what is known as the “Minto Principle.” Ever heard of it? In 1987, Barbara Minto wrote a book called the Pyramid Principle – Logic in Writing and Thinking. Minto is an ex McKinsey & Company consultant and wrote this during her early days there. She went on to train Bob Waterman and Tom Waters, co-authors of the best seller book – In Search of ExcellenceToday, McKinsey and EY use this book extensively, and it is also one of the top reads at Booz Allen Hamilton. Check it out!

Once again Preeti, our ex-Deloitte consultant, read this book on your behalf and distilled into a short review for your reading pleasure.

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WHY READ IT?

The Pyramid Principle is aimed at bettering your communication by helping your thinking, and focuses fundamentally on the logic of writing. Barbara Minto, an ex-McKinsey consultant, wrote a book designed to help consultants find a method to structure their advice and consulting reports. Since this book came out, McKinsey has made it standard training material.

This book provides answers to questions like, “How can I grab my audience’s attention in just a couple of minutes?” and “How can I create a compelling story with a logical structure that is easy to understand and easy to remember?” As a consultant, if you have to convince customers and have limited time for a presentation with busy executives, nailing these core things can be the difference between a win and a loss.

But what about using the right data to create a great presentation? This is another one of the skills you NEED to have in the bag if you want to be a world class consultant.

QUICK OVERVIEW

Picture this – you have a presentation before a board of Fortune 500 execs and you want your audience eating out of your hands. How do you leave them wanting more? If you want to watch this dream scenario unfold before you, here’s what you need to pay attention to – the people.

Here are a few things you have to be aware of:

  1. People lose interest fast when the subject they’re hearing about isn’t interesting
  2. Their interest spikes when they hear something new
  3. When your presentation is both new and interesting, more questions get raised. Instead of tuning out, your audience will be asking questions like, “What?”, “How?”, “Is it true?” and “Does it actually work?” As they do this, they’ll stay engaged and want more from you, which is ideal.

This book taught me how to think creatively, reason lucidly, and express ideas with clarity. It provides insight on how to define complex problems and establish the objectives of any document, assess ideas, and recognize their relative importance. The Pyramid Principle concept enables people to structure their reasoning into a coherent and transparent argument, helping them analyze their argument and confirm its effectiveness. This book also talks about how your horizontal logic and vertical logic, when arranged in a hierarchal and systematic structure, result in presenting to a topic to an audience in a way that is clear and easy to understand.

So what is vertical and horizontal logic? How does it work? Vertical logic is the question-answer dialogue and the horizontal logic is the kind of reasoning you use to understand the information being presented to you. How is this relevant? We all use these two types of logic naturally but we never stop to think and say, “Oh this is the vertical/horizontal logic method Minto was talking about”. Well, in the same way, as we read a story, we read one sentence after the other. We start with the main idea, then a question is raised, we answer the question and move to the next sentence and deduce in the same manner.

Horizontal logic is deductive reasoning or inductive reasoning. Here’s an example of deductive reasoning: Consultants are Intelligent-> I am a Consultant -> I am Intelligent. Example of Inductive reasoning: Consultants are Intelligent Therefore -> They are nerds-> They work hard->They are competitive. This understanding makes the mind aware of how one is thinking and accordingly structures sentences in the best logical way possible.

INTERESTING BOOK INSIGHTS

This book’s content is very interesting, but it’s not easy to master. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it’s just not the easiest material you’ll ever come across. Here are some things I found interesting.

Storytelling is an art with structure. That structure is referred to as introductory flow. This includes situation, complication, question and answer. Situation is the place, people group or time of the story being told, Complication is the problem being highlighted, Question will lead to the start of the question-answer dialogue and is the main question being addressed in the discussion, and Answer is the main answer/solution to the question.

Group and summarize the supporting arguments. 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.” 

How to focus on core issues. Because of the importance Minto places on structure and aligning the story in an order, it’s important to understand different kinds of order.

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

OVERALL SUMMARY & CONCLUSION

I personally found this book to be a fun and felt the ‘oh-I-didn’t-know-this’ feeling numerous time. I enjoy books that unfold another layer of understanding of the knowledge I already possess and this book does just that. This book is an enabler. It enables you to be aware of relationships, personal understanding, comprehension, writing skills, visual demonstration of creative ideas, and more.

Anyone who has to think, present, or write clearly about a domain topic will benefit from reading The Pyramid Principle. Relating stories to what and how people think, how their brains are wired, and how the presenter relates to the audience is a theme that runs through this entire book. What I noticed is that Minto’s Pyramid Principle can make you feel a natural affinity towards her suggestions. If you feel this way too, it’s because you tend to work through a linear cause-effect-response framework. If you look at case studies, advertisements, literature etc, you will find that this is already a commonly-used practice.

Watch out for a possible naming ambiguity between the Minto Pyramid Principle and the inverse pyramid structure of writing. In journalism, the inverse pyramid structure (IPS) of writing refers to reporting a news story from the most important material to the least important, separating the statement of what happened from the specific detail of how and why it happened.

Some consultants find the Minto Pyramid Principle difficult to follow, which is not untrue, as I mentioned earlier. It is hard to follow, unless you read it, try it, read it again, and try it again. The first three chapters are simplified and made very easy to read, but it is a very detailed and cumbersome read in the later chapters. Nevertheless, it’s functional, worthy to hold on to and a great reference book.

Reading it once will make you aware of principles of excellent presentations; re-reading it at least five times will help you actually execute the principles Minto talks about.

Pick up a copy of Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle today.


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