The Pyramid Principle, Part 1: Better writing starts with better thinking

From briefing notes and memos to reports, presentations and proposals, for most of us, writing is an essential part of our business lives.

What distinguishes a clear, dynamic report or a persuasive, well-written proposal from a muddy mess? The answer, according to business consultant and writer Barbara Minto, is in the pyramid.

In her book, The Minto Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing, Thinking and Problem Solving, Minto argues that most people assume, incorrectly, that clear writing is simply a function of forming simpler, more direct sentences. While clarity of language is essential, Minto points out this approach is merely a matter of style. What’s equally vital is structure—presenting ideas in a logical order.

The human mind naturally seeks to impose order—it wants to see things as belonging together in logical groups and patterns. (Think “Big Dipper” versus individual stars.)

This same drive to organize, says Minto, takes place when we are listening to or reading about ideas. We assume that ideas presented together, one after the other, belong together. The more we understand and take advantage of this knowledge, the better our business writing will be.

The pattern that Minto says works best for business writing is a pyramid where ideas are organized under a single point. That point should be focused on answering a question in your reader’s mind.

At the tip of the pyramid is the main message or theme you want to communicate. Below that are the details that support your message and create the foundation for it. The farther you move down the pyramid, the more detail you provide.

Here’s an example from Minto’s book that illustrates this point:

Points in the order they occurred to the writer:

Mr. Brown telephoned to say he can’t make the meeting at 3:00. Ms. Green says she doesn’t mind making it later, or even tomorrow, but not before 10:30. Mr. White says he won’t be back in the office until late tomorrow. The conference room is booked tomorrow, but free Thursday. Thursday at 11:00 looks to be a good time. Is that OK for you?

Pyramid-style points:

Could we reschedule today’s meeting to Thursday at 11:00? This would be more convenient for Mr. Brown and Ms. Green, and would also permit Mr. White to attend. It is also the only other time this week that the conference room is free.

As the above example shows, the paragraph starts with the main idea (reschedule the meeting) and is supported by more detail (scheduling conflicts).

The result is the message is both clearer and more succinct.

Think first and write later, says Minto, and you’ll not only be a better writer, you’ll also write more quickly and with more confidence.

Coming up in Part 2: Constructing the pyramid.