Book review: ‘The Pyramid Principle’ by Barbara Minto

Paul Sutton

Book review: ‘The Pyramid Principle’ by Barbara Minto

This article appears in the September issue of our International Corporate Structures Newsletter.

If you are reading this, you are probably a regular consumer of reports, memos and papers produced by colleagues and advisers. You may also be a regular author of such documents. You would probably agree that reading them is not always a pleasure, and writing them is not always easy. This book, The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto was first published in 1987, and proposes a blueprint for communicating complex ideas clearly in writing.

The Pyramid Principle contradicts received wisdom about business writing in a number of ways. It suggests that headings such as “introduction”, “background”, “assumptions” and “findings” should not be used in business memos, because they have no ‘scanning value’ – they do nothing to convey the ideas which are being communicated. In fact, Minto says that a conclusion should generally be unnecessary, because the whole structure of the document should be to summarise the relevant ideas first, and then lead the reader through the reasoning. The only purpose of a conclusion, she says, is to invoke an urge for action.

Minto prescribes a structure for the introduction to every memo which is ‘situation – complication – question – answer’. The ‘situation’ is a story, starting with a statement which the reader can be assumed to know already and to agree with. The purpose of describing the situation is to put the reader in the same place as the author, and to reinforce the relevance of the issues addressed in the document. The ‘complication’ is what has happened in relation to that situation, that has raised the question.

The question being answered is at the heart of any memo or report. According to Minto, the failure to be clear about that question is the downfall of much business writing. Examples of the ‘question’ include: Is X a good a idea? How should Y be achieved?

The ‘answer’ is the resolution of the story begun in the ‘situation’. It forms the apex of the pyramid structure which Minto recommends. She says the answer should be in the form of a ‘key line’ of up to seven ideas which are at the same level of abstraction, and which are arranged in a logical order. (Why seven? Because there is a limit to the number of ideas that a reader can comprehend at the same time.) For example, if the question is ‘how?’, the key line for the answer should be ‘Step 1, Step 2, Step 3’ etc. If the question is ‘why’, the answer should be ‘Reason 1, Reason 2, Reason 3’ etc.

Minto says that “the clearest sequence is always to give the summarizing idea before you give the ideas being summarized.” This gives rise to the proposed pyramid structure. The first key line in the ‘answer’ operates at the highest level of abstraction. The next level down in the pyramid then expands, in turn, on each of the top line concepts, and applies the same structure to the sub-grouping: a summarizing thought, followed by a series of points at the same level of abstraction. And so on down the pyramid.

In addition to proposing a structure for business writing, The Pyramid Principle also provides tools for ensuring clarity of thought and clarity of expression. There isn’t the space to summarise them all here, but they include how to ensure that ideas in each key line are grouped coherently, how to order ideas in a logical way, how to distinguish between deductive and inductive reasoning, and how to test whether conclusions are valid.

With a clear structure in place, all that remains is to put it into words. “Your objective should be to dress your ideas in a prose that will not only communicate them clearly, but also give people pleasure in the process of absorbing them.” A very worthwhile objective for us all!