It’s no secret that communication is key in the workplace. Every day, in-office and remote workers spend hours discussing projects, writing memos, and exchanging small talk with colleagues and managers.
All this communication is essential for a workplace to run smoothly — but only if everyone communicates effectively. To improve their skills, many professionals use the Minto Pyramid Principle. This intuitive framework makes writing, speaking, and even thinking about work problems easy and efficient, ultimately making you an expert communicator.
What’s the Minto Pyramid Principle?
American consultant Barbara Minto — the first-ever female MBA to work for McKinsey and Company — developed and coined the Minto Pyramid Principle while working for the company in the 1970s. This principle outlines the most effective way to structure and communicate information:
- Bottom line
- Key points
- Details and data
Each section is more detailed and information-heavy than the previous one, giving the principle its namesake pyramid structure.
Barbara used this principle to transform recruits into expert consultants, teaching them to craft clear, engaging, memorable presentations and reports. And in 1985, Barbara published “The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking,” introducing the concept to the mainstream and indelibly changing the business world.
McKinsey still teaches new hires the Pyramid Principle today, and most other consulting firms follow suit. Frankly, it’s not hard to see why: this method is a valuable tool that can help improve your communication skills, whether you’re writing an email or meeting a colleague face-to-face.
Understanding the Minto Pyramid Principle
Using the Pyramid Principle is a great way to develop strong communication skills. Here’s how to address each of the three pyramid sections.
1. Bottom line
The Minto Pyramid utilizes “answer-first communication.” In the top tier of your pyramid — the start of your communication — present your overall argument, finding, or suggestion. This is also known as the “BLUF” method, or “Bottom Line Up Front.”
Starting your business communication this way stresses your main message, ensuring colleagues catch the most important details. Presenting your bottom line immediately also makes your argument more persuasive since you can spend the rest of your presentation, email, or DM supporting your claim with data.
Barbara suggests structuring your bottom-line argument in a four-part story structure with the following components:
- Situation: Establish your audience and set the story’s scene.
- Complication: Explain the dilemma at hand, which you’ll solve with your bottom line.
- Question: Ask your audience how they can resolve the complication facing the company.
- Answer: Present your argument as the solution.
This story structure makes your argument more compelling and engages your audience as they read/watch.
2. Key points
Once you’ve set the scene and laid out your argument, bolster your bottom line with key takeaways. Summarize the main reasons you came to your conclusion and explain them as clearly as possible.
This section should have more “meat” than the bottom line, but it should still be relatively short to hold your audience’s attention and help them process the information.
3. Details and data
This is the base of the Minto Pyramid, so it should be the most content-heavy section. Once you’ve stated your argument and presented main points, “show your work” by offering all the data, case studies, and other research used to reach your conclusion. These details give your argument even more scaffolding, making it more persuasive and compelling.
Barbara recommends dividing your data into categories using the MECE framework (mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive). Pronounced “meece” like “Greece,” this system encourages you to separate your data set into mutually exclusive categories (e.g., by age brackets) and also analyze the collectively exhaustive data (e.g., data from all subjects regardless of age).
The MECE framework makes it easier to analyze your data and glean valuable insights that support your bottom-line argument.
Alternative structures for your pyramid
You can use the Pyramid Principle to create a good presentation, report, or team meeting agenda. This method makes all business communications more efficient and easy to understand — but there is some flexibility regarding how you share your information.
As long as you state your bottom line first and foremost, you can organize other details any way you want. You might present your key points and arguments with any of the following structures:
- Sequential: Sometimes, the best way to tell a story is chronologically. This helps your audience follow your thinking process as you examine the data and form your final argument.
- Importance: If you want your audience to agree with your argument, consider mentioning the most important details and data right away to gain their trust and support.
- Impact: Make your argument more memorable by starting with the most emotionally-weighted information, like why this information is important to you or how you think it’ll impact the audience’s work.
The structure you use for your business writing or presentation depends on the impression you want to make. While following the logical order for your project and staying true to your communication style, don’t be afraid to show some creativity.
The Minto Pyramid Principle in action
This Pyramid Principle example should help you see how to apply the method professionally.
Imagine that your employer — a clothing brand — wants to increase sales among Gen Z shoppers. They’ve tasked you with analyzing the market and determining how much they need to invest to see a profit. After conducting your research and completing your analysis, your Minto Pyramid might look like the following.
1. The bottom line
The top of your pyramid (report/presentation/etc.) gives executives the “bottom line up front” and answers the company’s question in a four-part story structure:
“Company X will increase revenue by $100 million over five years by investing $30 million in marketing to target the 11–26 age demographic, otherwise known as Gen Z.
Gen Z currently accounts for one out of every five Americans. They have a total spending power of $360 billion, but unfortunately, Company X is seeing only 5% of its sales from this age bracket. Tailoring marketing efforts for this age group can increase interest and boost total revenue, with a projected $100 million increase over the next five years.”
This BLUF example clearly states the cost, benefit, and projected time frame required to meet the company’s goals. It also establishes your presentation’s situation, complication, question, and answer.
2. The key points
Next, summarize your argument’s key points:
- Market information: “Gen Z is coming into adolescence and young adulthood, which means their purchasing power and potential to develop brand loyalty is high.”
- Changes to the company’s marketing strategy: “Gen Z typically discovers clothing brands through X, Y, and Z methods. Company X must invest in marketing through these channels to reach this market. This will likely cost $30 million over the next five years.”
- Ways those changes may impact the business: “As company X courts Gen Z, they need to adjust their inventory and advertising strategy. This will likely mean losing about 2% of their clientele from millennial and Gen X consumers.”
Think of your key points like the CliffNotes for your argument, and include all the must-know information for your audience.
3. The details and data
When you reach the base of your pyramid, your audience should be interested to learn more. You’ve dangled the carrot ($100 million in increased revenue) and presented a few key facts (changing marketing strategies, the potential to lose customers, etc.). Now, it’s time to show them exactly how you reached your conclusion.
Present the market studies, customer profiles, year-over-year projections, and everything else you have that supports your argument. If you’ve followed the Pyramid Principle, your colleagues should be fully engaged and understand the thought process you took to settle on your bottom-line suggestion.
Why is the Minto Pyramid Principle effective?
When Barbara created the Minto Pyramid over 50 years ago, she aimed to streamline her fellow consultants’ communication and make them easier to understand. She knew that time was money and most busy executives didn’t have the time to closely read massive walls of text or listen to meandering presentations.
And 50 years ago, professionals didn’t even have the internet vying for their attention.
These days, it’s even more important to get your point across quickly and efficiently because most people won’t read everything you write. Research from the Nielsen Norman Group found that 79% of people scan web pages rather than read them word-for-word. Today’s readers are adept at looking for key information, so make it easy to find.
The Minto Pyramid Principle also makes your argument more persuasive. By stating your conclusion at the start, you frame all details and analysis around that central point. This helps your audience see the situation your way and agree with your conclusion or suggestion.
Create clearer communications with the Minto Pyramid Principle
While using the Minto Pyramid will certainly make your business documents and PowerPoint presentations clearer and more persuasive, working through this pyramid also gives you the chance to define your argument.
Maybe you originally didn’t have the research needed to persuade your audience, or you wanted to leave key points out for brevity. Running all your communications through this process might help you clarify what you want to say so even you understand it better.
Whether you’re a manager encouraging upward communication with your employees, a worker preparing to manage up successfully, or an intern trying to make an impact, using this principle will take your professional development to the next level.