We’ve all heard the conventional wisdom that says if you want to advance in your career, then you have to work hard.
Except, that’s only partially true.
If you want to move up the ranks from in any business, then you need to master a critical skill beyond work ethic: the ability to communicate more information, more clearly, in a limited amount of time.
In business, you have a few minutes to get your point across before a busy executive stops paying attention to you. If you fail to get right to the point, you risk losing them.
Yes, a presentation may last a lot longer, but you don’t have much time to get–and keep–someone’s attention.
You need to tell your stories in a way that models the way people process information. In the consulting world, we accomplish this with The Pyramid Principle.
What Is The Pyramid Principle?
One of the best, yet relatively unknown tools to help you hold the attention of executives (or any audience) is The Pyramid Principle.
The Pyramid Principle was created by Barbara Minto, who headed training for McKinsey & Company back in the ’70s. Barbara was the best at getting all the new recruits to go from hot-shot, straight-from-campus hires to expert consultants in the shortest amount of time.
Barbara did it by employing a principle that could take large amounts of information and structure it to simplify the story yet retain the detail.
How often have you had to decide between unloading a ton of content or dumbing down the message to communicate it quickly?
The Pyramid Principle allows you to have your cake and eat it, too – all the content, and easily digestible. How is this possible?
By focusing on the key actionable point, or the “bottom line,” and supporting it through the underlying arguments and data, Barbara was able to teach her students to get straight to the point.
That’s what The Pyramid Principle is at its core: a principle that allows you to quickly seize your audience’s attention and communicate with gravitas, by creating a compelling story that is easy to understand and remember.
How You Can Use The Pyramid Principle To Convince Anyone
The Pyramid Principle has a four-part introductory structure:
You start with knowing your audience. Then you arrange the information in a way that your audience can rapidly process.
Think about the introduction to a story:
Good stories don’t just dump information on their audiences, they begin by crisply describing a situation, creating a mental picture in the mind of the audience.
Like any good story, you introduce a complication to highlight the conflict, the problem or opportunity that affects the situation. Then a question is posed to highlight the decision at hand, the moment of truth for the individual or company. The answer or recommendation is then provided as the resolution, the (hopefully) happy ending to the story.
Let’s pretend a shoe company (which I’ll refer to as Hot Fire Shoes) hired you as a consultant. Here’s what your Pyramid Principle-driven presentation intro might look like:
“For years, Hot Fire Shoes has shown a steady increase in yearly revenue and profitability.”
You’ve established your familiarity with their company, established a positive atmosphere, and set the stage for your story.
“This quarter, Hot Fire Shoes’ profitability unexpectedly flat lined for the first time in company history.”
You’ve made the dilemma immediately clear to everyone in the room. This creates a sense of urgency, compelling the executive to listen and possibly act, based on your upcoming ideas. In short, you’ve grabbed their attention.
“How can we increase profitability for Hot Fire Shoes?”
You’ve started a question and answer dialogue (drawn from ancient techniques, like the Socratic Method). In The Pyramid Principle, the question extends logically from the complication, which keeps the overarching problem mentally straightforward and easier to follow.
Note that the question above is over simplified – in practice, a good question is often more subtle and the result of analysis to ensure the right question is asked.
You’re not looking for a one-size fits all solution here. The question you raise needs to have answers that are mutually exclusive and completely exhaustive, otherwise known in business lingo as MECE.
Mutually exclusive means that each component is distinct, there is no overlap, and that you can address each part on its own without worrying about the other components. Completely exhaustive means you have included every possible answer.
For the Hot Fire Shoes example, you can start with a relatively simple answer. To increase profits, you can do two things:
- Increase revenues
- Decrease costs
Neither option overlaps with the other, so they are mutually exclusive, and there are no major paths to profitability that fall outside of either category, so they are also completely exhaustive.
If your answers aren’t mutually exclusive, the lines become blurred, and clients may become confused and try clarify your logic on the fly. If your answers aren’t completely exhaustive, clients’ minds may wonder what is missing and ask you, “What about these other options?”
At that point you’ve already lost their attention, andwhatever momentum you had. Sound like any presentations you’ve seen?
How The Pyramid Principle Makes The Complex Simple
To keep executives focused, you need to craft a coherent story. This means restructuring answers into the right scopes and right descriptions.
If I handed you a list of 25 options, you’d have no chance of making a smart decision. The same is true with your audience. You want to pick three to five options to highlight as answers to the question you’ve presented to them.
Research from George Miller has shown a human being can hold about 7 items in their short-term memory, and for some people it is even less. That is why 3-5 items is the optimal size of components for a given idea.
Personally, I like three to five because that gives you room to be wrong on one or two options. This is something Derek, a true genius who I thought would change the game for my firm, couldn’t grasp.
Derek was quantitatively brilliant, but his comfort zone wouldn’t allow him to offer a client an idea with 3-5 supporting options. Instead, he felt he had to demonstrate his intellect by telling them about all 25 options that might work, in a semi-organized list.
Twenty-five options are way too many choices for busy executives.
What’s nice about The Pyramid Method is that you’re conveying bite size morsels of information that can easily fit on a slide, in a chapter, or in a section of a report that an executive—or functional leader—can quickly absorb.
This is a key tenet of both effective information analysis and communication to your audience.
Why The Pyramid Principle Is So Effective
One of the reasons The Pyramid Principle is so effective is that it uses vertical relationships.
The vertical relationship is important because it presents an idea, allows the reader to absorb it, and then provides answers and supporting evidence. The top of the pyramid is a statement, with the supporting base of the pyramid ready to provide answers to the questions the statement raises.
Every piece of information on the pyramid base reinforces the tip above it, making the pyramid’s conclusion inescapable to the viewer. And the base of one pyramid can (and often does) become the tip of another, to maintain the ‘rule of 3’ discussed above.
Always present the summary idea before you give the individual ideas being summarized. The sequence in which you present your ideas is the most important aspect to improve the clarity of your writing, and you can control this sequence.
If there is power in the vertical relationships, is there also power in the horizontal relationships? Absolutely, though in a different way.
In vertical relationships, the supporting points (the base) need to answer the question raised by the statement above (the tip). For horizontal relationships, the supporting points relate to each other, using either deductive or inductive reasoning.
The Pyramid Principle Sounds Great, But What If I’m Wrong?
Yes, it’s possible your recommendation may be wrong. However, the purpose of the Pyramid Principle isn’t always to convince everyone that you’re right. It’s to lay out your argument in the clearest terms possible, so that listeners can understand your thinking and engage more fully.
If you’re right, it will allow the audience to grasp the idea quickly and easily.
If you’re wrong, it will make your thinking clearer, so that a listener can point out the flaw in your logic and collaboratively provide you constructive feedback.
Another upside to mastering how to craft coherent ideas, is that executives are keenly aware of how hard it is to do what you’ve demonstrated. They’ll want you around, whether as a consultant or in another capacity – don’t be surprised when clients want to hire you.
You see, it’s not just about working hard. It’s about your ability to communicate, with impact.
You still need to hustle, and you still need to hit your targets. But all else being equal, the person who advances the fastest is usually the one who knows the value of time, how to deliver value, and tell a succinct story with sound reasoning.