October 05

What you could learn from Barbra Minto’s The Pyramid Principle (2009, 172 pages)

Few books are required reading at McKinsey, the Pyramid Principle is one of the books that most people read during their time.

Consulting and leadership are about convincing others to change.  While a leader often has positional authority, consultants do not.  McKinsey consultants found that Barbar’s framework helped them influence clients by building a well structured and logical argument that has been arranged into a compelling story targeted at the specific audience.

The case for structure.  

Barbra argues that the human mind tries to impose order on everything around it.  So, to make a compelling case, you must structure your information and argument to make it as easy as possible for people to follow.   Her second argument is that people are limited by their working memory, so you need to try to limit the number of ideas to between 3 and 7 (McKinsey is famous for all problems having three solutions).  Barbara suggested that the need for structure and limitation on human working memory mean information structured in a pyramid, would be better received and more convincing.

The main components of pyramid theory

  • Start with the answer
  • Ideas at any level must always be summaries of the ideas grouped below them
  • Ideas in each group must always be the same kind of information
  • Ideas in each group must be logically ordered


Below is a worked example.

Barbera showed that there are several compelling ways to structure information:

  • Deductively or Inductively (see diagram below)
  • Chronologically (first, second, third)
  • Structurally (London, New York, Paris)
  • Comparatively (most important, least important)


How to convey the information

Barbera also suggested three building blocks are needed to influence change:

  • Situation.  What we want to do? (dispassionate, facts based)
  • Complication.  What are the obstacles preventing us from doing it?
  • Question/answer.  How do we remove the obstacle?

The Pyramid Principle is a compelling book, that will allow you to better structure your analysis and arguments.  I learnt a great deal from this book, and I still use the frameworks often.

You can buy the Pyramid Principle here on Amazon UK

Caveats for beginners

  • always try top down
  • Use the situation as the starting point for thinking through the introduction
  • Don’t omit to think through the introduction
  • Always put historical chronology in the introduction
  • limit the introduction to what the reader will agree is true
  • Be sure you support all Key Line points