minto chartMost of us spend much of our lives in meetings and reading. I wish more of the people that drone on and on in unfocused Powerpoint presentations, or write long unfathomable treatises, would learn to apply some discipline to their oral and written communications. Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle approach to structured thinking is one excellent methodology that could help.

The core of Structured Thinking is to group ideas in a presenter’s inductive or deductive thought process into small clusters that support the main thesis in increasing detail (granularity). The chart above shows this graphically. The supporting argument in green is inductive: Each of the elements in row two of the pyramid answers a question (e.g. why, how, how do you know) about the idea above it. The supporting argument in red is deductive: Each of the elements leads logically to the next. The best way to make any point or argument, says Barbara, is to structure the thinking that supports it in this way.

Let’s look at an example. Suppose your thesis is John Kerry is more likely to be able to defeat George Bush in 2004 than Howard Dean. Your three supporting arguments (row two of the diagram above) might be:

  • Because of his distinguished military service, he’s better able to beat Bush in the only area where Bush currently has a popularity edge on the Democrats: defense, security and foreign policy
  • He’s more likely to attract voters in the key demographics that are likely to decide the election
  • His policy positions, while very close to Dean’s, are slightly closer to mainstream public opinion on several key matters

The deductive argument for the second bullet above might be:

  1. The election outcome will be determined by whether disenchanted voters vote at all, independent voters hold their noses and vote for one of the two major party candidates, and how swing voters decide to vote at the last minute
  2. Polls indicate that Kerry has greater appeal than Dean to independent and swing voters
  3. Bush will try to use the 2004 anniversary of 9/11 to appeal emotionally to swing voters, and Kerry is better able to parry that tactic because his method of dealing with voter fear is emotionally-based (but positive, rather than Bush’s negative), while Dean’s is, while equally defensible, intellectually-based.

Now the presenter needs to support each of these six arguments with further inductive and deductive examples and arguments. (Please note, I have no idea whether the above arguments are valid or not, I’m just posing them as an example. As long as someone beats Bush I’ll be happy). The presentation or written thesis continues in this manner, strengthening support for each of the preceding arguments and hence for the main thesis.

The wrap-around for this pyramid includes the introduction and the closing, both of which have their own structure. The introduction (ideally presented as a story) leads to the opening statement of the thesis and consists of: (a) a factual summary of the current situation, (b) a complicating factor or uncertainty that the audience should care about, and (c) the explicit or implied question that this factor or uncertainty raises in the audience’s mind, and which your thesis answers. The closing consists of: (a) a restatement of the thesis and the key (second pyramid row) supporting arguments, (b) a reminder of why it’s important and what’s at stake, and (c) a ‘who needs to do what by when’ action plan of next steps.

The first paragraph of this post is an example of such an introduction, and the last paragraph is an example of such a conclusion. Not great examples, I confess: I need to work on this too.

This discipline has the additional benefit of supporting the arguments in a written research report in a logical, consistent manner, so that if you find an error in the research, or disagree with one of the arguments, it does not necessarily undermine the entire thesis of the research, and it can be rectified without having to tear apart the whole paper.

This brief summary does not do justice to Barbara’s excellent methodology, and if you like what you’ve read I’d encourage you to take a look at her book or (see link above) consider having your company purchase her course.

In business, in our writing, and in making persuasive arguments, we need to apply more structure and discipline to what we say and write. Otherwise we’ll continue to waste much of our lives unnecessarily in meetings, and writing and reading inarticulate, disorganized, overlong essays and reports. The Pyramid Principle can help. I’d like to hear from readers who have used it, or other techniques, and what they think of them.

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  1. mrG says:

    I prefer, but don’t always adhere to, the methods of mathematics, and specifically, of geometry, when I write. I start from the finished product, the conclusion that John Kerry defeated George Bush in 2003 and then conduct a prescient post-mortem, backtracking from my conclusion by asking, for each decomposition, why I know this to be’s like doing mazes, the problem is easier in reverse, and besides, when I start from preconceived conclusions, I am far less likely to accidentally convince myself of its antithesis! :)

  2. Rayne says:

    When writing for business results, I use IMAP (Information Mapping) techniques. It helps one get to the heart of the matter for convincing and clear statements.Biggest problem I find in business writing: managers’ inability to make a clear problem statement. When asked, they can’t articulate the problem in 25 words or less. IMAP helps here.(To learn more about IMAP, see also Robert Horn’s website.)

  3. says:

    My toolkit for such structured thinking and communicating is the Theory of Constraints (TOC) Thinking Processes (TP).The one tool from that collection that is most close to the pyramid is the Future Reality Tree (FRT), in which a proposal is structured in a collection of if-then, and if-and if-and if-then “clusters.” While it is useful for the proposer to build a case, it is also useful for communication as well, as the supporting assumptions are made explicit, and open to scrutiny, modification, and addition.As important as the if-then’s — probably more important — are the and’s in the logic. That is where the assumptions live.The FRT combines with the other tools in the TP toolkit to form a full problem-solving and implementation planning process — the Current Reality Tree for finding and confirming root causes with similar logical rigor, the Evaporating Cloud for “evaporating” conflicts and dilemmas that tend to perpetuate those causes, the FRT for building and presenting a proposed situation or strategy aiming at reducing problems and meeting goals, the Negative Branch Reservation for scrutiny and elimination of suspected undesirable side effects of the proposal, and the Prerequisite Tree for defining the way through obstacles that block the things you are adding to the logic but don’t exist today. Very useful for strategic planning, as well as for documenting and communicating it. The combination of the PrT and the FRT provides an easy-to-follow and easy-to-scrutinize roadmap for a strategy.(To learn more about the TOC TP in terms of how it helps use natural sources of resistance to change to build and improve proposals of change, check out this paper.)

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Gary: Hah! Your cynicism knows no bounds!Rayne: This is very useful stuff, and not inconsistent with Minto’s (they could both be used together). Thanks.Frank: While your techniques look quite sophisticated, I can see how they would help especially in problem/impasse-resolution and project management applications. You have an interesting blog that supports your methodology as well — good stuff. I see you also discovered the brilliant mind of Donella Meadows recently. For a 7-year-old article Places to Intervene is having quite a rebirth. A shame Ms. Meadows isn’t around to help us apply it. This is turning into a really good comments thread. Radio really needs some way to attach comments to the end of a post (at the author’s discretion, of course).

  5. Max says:

    I would also suggest reading Suzette Haden Elgin’s work on the Verbal Art of Self-Defence. Though it is not immediately applicable to structure of communication and reasoning, it does involve many of the mechanics of presentation and can affect the communication in question, whether it is a report, a conversation, an argument or a consultation – and help people get out of sticky situations relatively elegantly.

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