McKinsey’s Pyramid Principle
A tool used to process and structure large amounts of information to convey a story, message or presentation without omitting important details.
What is the Pyramid of Communication?
Minto Pyramid Principle also referred to as McKinsey’s Pyramid Principle is a tool used to process and structure large amounts of information to convey a story, message, or presentation without omitting important details. The principle of the McKinsey Pyramid is to cut to the chase in written texts or presentations. This ensures that the audience’s attention is captured and that a riveting story can be created that’s easy to remember and understand.
The Minto Pyramid Principle is applied by structuring points and arguments after the thesis statement has been introduced. The information that is presented subsequently branches off to the specific details in a clear and insightful manner.
Pyramid Principle History
The Pyramid Principle is used in the consulting world over – whether during interim internal discussions or executive-level presentations. Executive attention spans are notoriously short – don’t make your point in the first 10 seconds, and you’ve already lost your audience. That’s where the Pyramid Principle comes in. This is a seminal concept in executive communication and has spread like a virus from McKinsey to every other consulting firm worth its salt, including of course Bain and BCG.
The Pyramid Principle was created by Barbara Minto – the first female post-MBA hire at McKinsey – in the 1970s. Her concept literally flipped presentations on their head, and her book on the subject is still widely recognized as the standard for communicating concepts and arguments in a logical, well-structured way.
Why Is the Pyramid Principle so Effective?
The Pyramid Principle is very important to help you organize discussions with executives.
Management consultants exist to tackle really tough challenges. If clients’ problems were easy to solve, they would solve them quickly with their own teams. So management consulting teams cram a lot of analysis, research, and synthesis into every project.
But clients don’t have a ton of time to absorb all the great information and insights that were gathered in order to solve their problems. They have full-time jobs that keep them really busy.
The Pyramid Principle helps busy executives absorb your message quickly because it uses vertical relationships between the key points:
Top-level: The summary point you need to communicate.
Second level: The key points supporting the top-level point.
Third level: Data that supports second-level points.
You begin with the answer first, by communicating your summary point. This way, the listener has time to absorb that point and can easily see how your later points support it, strengthening your argument.
The third-level data supports the second-level points, resolving any questions that might be raised and further strengthening your argument. Each piece of information in your pyramid supports the level above it.
How Do You Use the Pyramid Principle?
First, we set the stage with the introduction, starting with the governing thought. Then we go into the SCQA sequence, and finally, use horizontal and vertical logic to support our arguments with both deductive and inductive reasoning.
Situation: The context, the time, and the place. Something everyone can agree on.
Complication: The problem, relevancy, sense of urgency to listen or act.
Question: The question that naturally arises following the complication. This is the start of the question-and-answer flow.
Answer: Your main idea.
The SCQA Approach
To apply the Pyramid Principle, we use the SCQA framework. SCQA stands for:
Situation This is the context of the problem you are trying to solve and consists of the simple and indisputable truth of the matter. It’s the first step that involves looking beyond the symptoms since it answers the “why”.
Complication In this part, we assess the reason behind the problem. We call it “the so what’ of the problem. It answers the “how”.
Question This part involves formulating a hypothesis, by asking questions. Here, you pose questions about the situation, eventually coming up with answers.
Answer In this section, we come up with answers to the questions formulated in the previous section. After confirming your hypothesis to be true, you can begin to structure and arrange the information. This way, you can present it before an audience in chronological order.
We see this in action when using horizontal and vertical logic while creating an introductory flow.
Using Horizontal and Vertical Logic
At the top of the pyramid is the point you’re trying to make—the key takeaway. Underneath that are three arguments to support your idea. Each of those arguments should be built on reasons that support it. The top of your pyramid has to be actionable, and it is supported by the arguments that follow below. Essentially, you’re starting with what you want and then supporting that with three reasons explaining why you want it.
When presenting your arguments, put them in logical groupings. Rank your arguments in order of importance, and keep them in discrete groups—if you’re talking about key metrics and sales automation, make all your points about key metrics before moving on to sales automation.
Presenting your ideas in this order lets you use both vertical and horizontal logic. Vertical logic is the storyline, the question-and-answer dialogue. As you travel down the Pyramid, you’re starting with your main idea, posing questions, and answering them with your supporting arguments.
The horizontal logic of the pyramid uses either inductive or deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning is the method you’re probably most familiar with. It involves making a general statement, and using specific examples to validate that statement: Birds can fly. I can fly, therefore I am a bird.
Inductive reasoning is the opposite, inferring a specific statement from a set of general supporting arguments.
Building the Pyramid: An Example
When we look at the company sales data, we see that there has been a decline over the years. We also face increased competition, even though we introduced new features two years ago and relaunched the product. These new features required a new factory to be built, which also increased costs. We have to increase market share to attain an economy of scale.
Pyramid Principle Applied
To regain profitability we have to improve market share by cutting prices:
Lower prices will increase sales.
Lower prices vis-a-vis competitors will increase our market share.
Increased volume helps us create economies of scale.
Using the Pyramid Principle, you can directly and effectively target your message. It’s not the only method for telling a story, but it’s an effective, direct approach that leaves no room for fluff, allowing you to focus your message on what you want, and why you want it.
How to Apply the Pyramid Principle to Pitching Ideas
It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3! Allow me to explain in three simple steps:
1. Begin with your conclusion
Your conclusion is a summary of your governing thought. It’s the single most important idea in your sales pitch, the primary message.
2. Create a list of your supporting arguments.
The second step is to compile a list of your reasons but doesn’t go overboard by explaining them. These are your supporting facts. A helpful pointer, use the rule of 3. It’s guaranteed to maximize the time with your audience and make you look decisive and confident.
3. Accompany your supporting facts with data
Back up your supporting facts with additional information such as pie charts, statistics, and graphs. This helps reinforce your governing thought and add credibility to your argument.
And voila! You’d be amazed how clearly you communicated your ideas and pitch, and more importantly, at the positive reactions, you get from your audience.