We had looked at a detailed post on story narrative earlier, which involved the use of the Pyramid Principle. However I felt that such an important construct needed a separate post of its own. So here goes.
Is business storytelling an art or a science? As with most such questions, the answer is: “a bit of both”.
But the most fascinating proponent of the “it’s all science” theory is a Harvard-grad and ex-McKinsey consultant called Barbara Minto (probably the most important person in storytelling not to have her own Wikipedia page). Minto developed what’s known as the Pyramid Principle (or Minto’s Pyramid Principle): a deceptively simple to understand and yet surprisingly tough to master storytelling tool.
In this post, we will look at:
In a follow-up post, we will look at an example of applying the tool on a business news article.
The Pyramid Principle is a tool used to “organise” or “structure” messages in any communication: it could be a presentation, report, email, or even a formal conversation.
It is best explained with a simple example. Let’s say you are a fan of podcasts and are writing a blog post on the topic, and here’s your unstructured first draft (which is like a thoughts-dump):
“I must tell you about this recent discovery of mine – podcasts! I believe they are the best thing since sliced bread. The other day, while taking a walk, I was listening to this fascinating episode on the Bengal famine by Malcolm Gladwell in his Revisionist History podcast, and I was blown away. Man, I can’t believe that all podcasts are free!
Another superb episode that comes to mind is by Radiolab on CRISPR, the gene-editing technology. Boy those guys can spin a great story.
There are many other interesting podcasts spanning a wide variety of topics. For example if you are a history buff, you should try out Hardcore History by Dan Carlin; for politics and current affairs, Fareed Zakaria is highly engaging, while Freakonomics is great for behavioural economics.
A big advantage of podcasts is that you can bundle them with other activities, like I do with my morning walk.
Many podcasts also feature interviews of leaders from various fields: politics, sports, science, media. It is a great way to keep yourself updated of the latest in these fields; and learn about new topics.
And oh, you can also listen while commuting to work – what a great way to spend those empty hours… Of course you can download episodes over WiFi and listen offline.
Plus, did I mention they are free?! Good content is no longer offered free in many cases – most good news websites now have paywalls and audiobooks can be quite expensive”
In the above piece, while you would get the gist, you’ll notice that the content itself is all over the place. If I were to ask you to close your eyes and re-tell the post’s contents to an imaginary friend, you may not remember all the points. That’s not something you’d want happening to your critical communication sent to the boss/client.
Which is where the Pyramid Principle comes in. Let’s look at the statements and start organising them under 3-4 buckets.
Organising ideas into buckets
Now the ideas/messages under each bucket need to be summarised with a key message. Here we go:
We then derive one main message that summarises the ideas across all the buckets. Finally, when we organise all the ideas, we realise why this construct is called the Pyramid Principle – because the ideas can be arranged in the form of a pyramid, with the main idea at the top, supported by 3-4 ideas below, which are further supported by more ideas below:
The Pyramid of ideas for the podcast blog
So to summarise, the way to build a pyramid from your ideas is:
Of course, the pyramid structure is just the skeleton of your blog post – not the final output. But it lends solid structure to the same. With the structure in place, let’s rewrite the original post:
Goes down far easier right?
The Pyramid Principle construct has many advantages in business communication:
Hat-tip to Sriram, who introduced me to this tool.
In case you have a presentation/communication that you’d like to put under the Pyramid treatment, send it off – happy to give my thoughts!