The Pyramid Principle – Applied

For Analysts
For Managers

The Pyramid Principle® will help you drive action from key stakeholders and increase your influence in the process. What if we told you that there’s a better way to create and present your decks? One that will drive action and get you to the most important part of the conversation right away? That’s right – today we’re talking about the world-famous Pyramid Principle®, developed and popularized by Barbara Minto.

Our team conducts over 100 custom training sessions per year for teams inside of the Fortune 2000 – focused just on The Pyramid Principle. Does your team need help clarifying its message? Learn more.

What Is The Pyramid Principle?

Haven’t heard of it? Or worse yet: do you willfully ignore it? If you’re asking yourself the question, “What is the Pyramid Principle?”, then buckle up for a quick overview. More importantly, prepare for some key takeaways on why you should implement The Pyramid Principle into your own presentations, emails, and meetings.

The Pyramid Principle-Applied

Pyramid Principle History

The Pyramid Principle is used all over the consulting world, from interim internal discussions to executive-level presentations. Executive attention spans are notoriously short – don’t make your point in the first 10 seconds, and you’ve already lost your audience. That’s where the Pyramid Principle comes in. This is a foundational concept in executive communication, and has spread from McKinsey to all top consulting firms (including of course Bain and BCG).

The Pyramid Principle was created by Barbara Minto – the first female post-MBA hire at McKinsey – in the 1970s. Her concept literally flipped presentations on their head, and her book on the subject is still widely recognized as the standard for communicating concepts and arguments in a logical, well-structured way.

Pyramid Principle Structure

The concept even goes beyond just talking to executives. It’s applicable anytime you are trying to convey a persuasive argument or ask someone to do something. No matter the medium of your presentation – whether a client-facing slide deck, an internal meeting, or an email – structuring your thoughts with the Pyramid Principle will help you get your point across clearly and effectively, while staying MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive).

There are three parts of the Pyramid Principle

  1. The first and the most important part, is the answer. We call this the Assertion.
    • When we’re working with coaching and corporate clients, we encourage them to begin with the Assertion: the answer they believe will be proven through data analysis later. We encourage them to hypothesize it, define it, and clearly build their workflow around it – all the while encouraging them to keep an open mind. Most times the answer that you begin with (on a case in a consulting project, or internally as you manage a team) will be disproven through your project activities. However, having an answer brings clarity to the work process and utilizes a hypothesis-driven approach – another fundamental principle of consulting!
  2. Part 2 of the Pyramid Principle is one step down, the middle layer of the Pyramid. These are Arguments that support your Assertion.
    • These Arguments are critical, and there should usually be three to five. The Arguments are the main points that you will later go on to prove. In total the Arguments you choose should best prove out and support your overall Assertion. There are often many Arguments you could make, and it’s a significant part of the process to analyze and define which Arguments you should include!
  3. The final part of the Pyramid is the bottom layer of Data.
    • All data inside a presentation or a written communication should support the Argument up above it. And each one of those Arguments should support the overall Assertion. So once you get down to the data layer, that’s where you’re proving out some of the substantiating evidence behind the Arguments and the Assertion. A lot of curating should happen to determine which data points to include as you build your Argument chapters to tell this top-down story.

 

Pyramid Principle Applied

 

The Pyramid Principle starts with the end in mind. Give your conclusion or answer first (Assertion), follow it up with your main points (Arguments), including the data in each Argument chapter that best supports each one.

Here’s the beauty of this approach: you lead with the most important part of your story and reinforce it only with the necessary messaging. It cuts out the fluff and focuses your audience on making a decision: whether to act on or believe your key takeaway.

This dramatically lessens confusion, shortens meetings, and motivates action from your stakeholders. Talk about a win-win-win!

“Will I be too abrasive by leading with my Assertion first?” In situations where it is the first time you are interacting with an audience (and you don’t have pre-built trust), it can be.

However, in most instances you’ll already have some established trust or report with your stakeholders and leading with your proposed solution effectively frames the rest of your conversation. It gets right to the heart of the matter: either the takeaway aligns with what they were already thinking and you can move on to next steps, or they have objections that you get to use your supporting Arguments to address. Either way, you’re discussing the most meaningful matters right up front.

Pyramid Principle Key Concepts

  1. Lead with the Assertion (answer/recommendation/takeaway)
  2. Give main supporting Arguments as opposed to details
  3. Back up supporting Arguments with curated Data points

One objection to the Pyramid Principle is that it is perceived to take away from the authority of the answer or conclusion – the “punchline.”

Yet, put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Typically, executives think big-picture and “top-down.” What is the big picture? What other priorities and budgets are you competing with? They carved out 30 minutes (at most) to hear your perspective on the issue at hand… don’t bury your answer, lead with it!

Even if you’re not communicating with executives, use The Pyramid Principle to maximize the time you have to with stakeholders to get to the part of the conversation you really want to engage in. If the stakeholder wants more details, they’ll ask!

Pyramid Principle Video Overview

Pyramid Principle Conclusion

Try it! During your next presentation (internal or external), present your findings and overarching recommendation first, utilizing The Pyramid Principle structure. You’ll be giving your audience clarity upfront and help drive the conversation forward to gain buy-in and motivate action.

Pyramid Principle Training for Teams

Use the Pyramid Principle to ensure your key takeaway “lands” with your target audience. While the concept is straightforward, it’s surprisingly difficult to master.

Ready to take your team’s performance to the next level? Whether your team’s focus is sales, advisory, marketing science, or anything else, Management Consulted offers customized live training and partners with some of the world’s leading companies. Learn more or reach out today, and let our expert team take your team’s executive communication to the next level!

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