The Pyramid Principle: Lessons in Effective Writing
How many times have you read a piece and thought to yourself, what did I just read? I know I do that on the daily and I cannot stop but wonder, do my readers feel that way about my writing? During a discussion about effective communication, a mentor of mine led me to the following book: The Pyramid Principle.
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 question at hand and the supporting arguments are found under. Then comes evidence for each argument. “Ideas at any level in the pyramid must always be summaries of the ideas grouped below them.”
Written by Barbara Minto, the Pyramid Principle describes how to effectively structure your written pieces. She argues that by using an answer first methodology, grouping supporting arguments and logically ordering supporting ideas, one can structure their piece of work in a way that is for the human brain to process.
Answer First Methodology
The first rule of effective communication for any consultant is to answer any question ‘answer first’. For many scientists and engineers like myself, this top-down structure is counter-intuitive: it goes against the structure enforced in technical writing such as scientific papers. However, in business, an answer first methodology is the golden standard of effective communication.
An answer first methodology maximizes your time with the audience. From my experience working as a consultant, I learned that executives are busy people who rather know the result instead of the details on how you got to the result. Using an answer first approach, therefore, allows you to provide them with the answer they are looking for in a timely manner.
Moreover, an answer first methodology favors a top-down approach that is naturally easier for our brain to process. Laying out the bigger picture first helps the brain process the remainder of the information.
Grouping supporting arguments
Grouping supporting arguments helps the brain process large amounts of information at a single time. Take this as an example, which shopping list would be easier to remember?
- Tomatoes, chew toy for the new puppy, bananas, broom, oranges, dog brush, plates, and toilet paper
- Fruits (tomatoes, bananas, oranges), puppy stuff (chew toy, dog brush) and household items (broom, plates and toilet paper).
Our brain has a natural tendency to group information as it reads it. Therefore, grouping arguments in writing greatly helps the reader to categorize information, helping the overall absorption of information. In the example above, the second shopping list is much easier to remember than the first because it separates a list of mixed items into three distinct groups.
This principle can and should be applied to writing in a business setting as it will help the writer get his thoughts across effectively.
Logically Ordering Supporting Ideas
Lastly, the organization of evidence is crucial in formulating a compelling argument. You must make sure that evidence grouped together to present a clear inductive or deductive argument.
An inductive argument “will take a set of ideas that are related simply by virtue of the fact that you can describe them all by the same plural noun”. An example of an inductive argument is:
- Pomeranians help with alleviating stress
- Samoyeds help with alleviating stress
- Dachshund help with alleviating stress
- Therefore, dogs help with alleviating stress
A deductive argument, on the other hand, presents arguments in successive steps. An example of this is:
- Businessmen wear ties to work
- Ties are part of a business formal outfit
- Therefore, businessmen dress in business formal
Next time you’re about to write something, why don’t you give this pyramid structure a try. I can guarantee that it will lead to more effective communication because it has done so for me!
This blog’s author – Meng Zhang is a consultant at Trident Consulting.