‘The Pyramid Principle’ by Barbara Minto

Sally Webb, April 2016



This book is the source of the most useful tool I've picked up in the last ten years. It outlines how to structure communications, presentations and reports to increase your impact.

I recommend that you read specific chapters: for instance, read Part 1 and use it to communicate through a top-down instead of bottom-up approach.

In a nutshell

In business, we need to get our ideas and recommendations across to others and it's tempting to take them on the journey that we've just been on, building up to our conclusions and recommendations. 

However, this is neither efficient nor effective.

So, how can we improve on this?

Barbara Minto recommends a pyramid structure, which starts with a top-down summary that gets your key point across quickly, and then broadens out to support your main idea and its key themes. This involves using as much evidence, assembled logically, as your audience requires.

Her recommended structure is tried and tested: it fits well with how the brain absorbs information.

It's used by all management consultancies and it's also excellent in insight situations.

She starts with reference to the magical number 7, explaining that the mind can hold just seven items at a time (plus or minus two) in the short-term memory. This means that it's all too easy to overload people with too many thoughts. If you group items together and structure your thinking logically, it's much easier for your audience to absorb them.

She recommends starting at the top of the pyramid with a summary consisting of S, C, Q, A, which flows like a story:

  • Situation: This sets the scene, focusing on positive aspects
  • Complications: Mention the negatives, which have led to your key question
  • Question: The key question that needs to be addressed
  • Answer: A one-sentence overview answer, which she calls the key line

This is then supported by (ideally) three elements - such as three reasons, three recommendations or three changes to be made, grouped in a logical order.

The SCQA represents the top of the pyramid, with your three supports below it.

Below each of these are further groups of thoughts that support or explain what's above.

In the book, Minto delves much deeper into logical structures, which might or might not interest you.

Key insight applications

This approach to top-down communications is great for both presentations and reports.

How many presentations have you sat through that are structured like school science experiments, with pages of background, objectives, methods, analysis and (if you're still awake), perhaps conclusions and recommendations by about Slide 42?

It's much better for everyone if you start with a summary in SCQA style on the first slide or the first few slides. Your audience will then know very quickly what the key question is and what your answer is, and you can then share as much evidence as they need.

Conversely, if you take them through all of the evidence and build up to a grand finale, they might interpret it differently from you, and might not be persuaded by your conclusions.

It's much more effective to give the answer from the start, to ensure that they are ‘with you’, before sharing your evidence.

We’ve shared this approach with numerous Insight teams and they’ve found it very useful. Some have gone on to insist that their external suppliers and partners should create and share presentations using this approach, too.

The SCQA format is also great for one-page summaries and for structuring reports. We also recommend it at the briefing stage. If you can identify the SCQ element when you receive or write a brief or proposal, this will ensure that you focus on the key question, and it will speed things up for you when you prepare your communications later on.

In fact, any time you need to clarify your thinking or try to win an argument, see if you can use SCQA.

We recommend that the question should be a business question rather than a research or analysis one - a question that impacts the bottom line, rather than something that's just interesting or nice to know. And if you start your question with, "How can we..." you’ll find that this helps to focus on the business issue, as well as giving a quite collaborative feeling.

Try to use SCQA to start your next presentation. You might find it helpful to work with a colleague to construct it initially, and with practice, it will save you time and increase your impact. Let us know if you'd like any input - it's a key part of the Insight Communication Workshop that we run for Insight teams.

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