The Minto Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto

Minto Pyramid Principle cover

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Note: this summary refers to The Minto Pyramid Principle published in 1996. It is a different book than The Pyramid Principle, initially published in 1987. They are both written by the same author, Barbara Minto. However, The Minto Pyramid Principle is a heavily updated and expanded version that the author self-published. It is an excellent book.

The Pyramid Principle publisher — either Pearson, Prentice-Hall, or The Financial Times — re-releases the book every six to eight years to muddy the waters. Each release has a more recent publication date to give readers the impression that it’s a more up-to-date version. It’s not.

The Minto Pyramid Principle is more of a challenge to buy. You either need to order it directly from the author or find a used version on Amazon. At $150 new, it’s five times the price of The Pyramid Principle. But, for serious business people, it’s worth it.

The Big Idea

Many people consider the pyramid principle as the gold standard for formal business communications.

It provides you with a highly structured yet flexible approach for presenting a compelling argument.

Five Key Takeaways

—The pyramid principle starts with the central idea at the top. Its introduction follows a format that describes the situation, complication, question, and answer.

—The pyramid organizes concepts that share horizontal and vertical relationships. The horizontal relationship connects ideas with similar reasoning. The vertical relationship means that ideas get more specific as you move down the pyramid.

—The pyramid principle efficiently communicates the logic used in problem-solving. Problems, in this context, are clearly defined gaps between your current state and your desired state.

—Problem-solving requires decomposing your desired state into its parts. You then apply a variety of techniques to analyzing and developing a solution to the problem.

—The pyramid principle applies well to various types of business communication, including memos and presentations.

Structure

The Minto Pyramid Principle comprises 12 chapters grouped into four sections.

Section 1—Logic in Writing

Chapter 1—Why a Pyramid Structure?
Chapter 2—The substructures within the pyramid
Chapter 3—How to build a pyramid structure
Chapter 4—Fine Points of Introductions
Chapter 5—Deduction and Induction: The Difference

Section 2—Logic in Thinking

Chapter 6—Imposing Logic Order
Chapter 7—Summarizing Grouped Ideas

Section 3—Logic in Problem Solving

Chapter 8—Defining the Problem
Chapter 9—Structuring the Analysis of the Problem

Section 4—Logic in Presentation

Chapter 10—Reflecting the Pyramid on the Page
Chapter 11—Reflecting the Pyramid on a Screen
Chapter 12—Reflecting the Pyramid in Prose

Summary

Chapter 1—Why a Pyramid Structure?

You use a pyramid structure to make ideas understandable and formulate an argument. Neither you nor an audience can understand a random assortment of thoughts without form. You create this order by grouping ideas. And you name the group based on a common characteristic.

You can impose order in two directions. A top-down approach means that you start with the main idea and break it into parts. A bottom-up approach means that you brainstorm ideas and then group them into a pyramid.

Chapter 2—The substructures within the pyramid

The components of a pyramid must adhere to two types of relationships. First, a vertical relationship means that concepts are more general at the top of the pyramid. And they are more specific at the bottom of the pyramid. Each set of ideas are components of the one above it.

Second, the horizontal relationship means that each set of specific ideas must adhere to either inductive or deductive groupings. In an inductive group, the components support the conclusion captured above it. Deductive groups demonstrate the truth to a rule asserted by the idea above it.

An introduction frames the argument so that the subsequent groupings make sense. It contains four components: situation, complication, question, and answer (“SCQA”). First, the situation is a statement that a reasonable reader will accept. Second, presenting a point of tension, the complication disrupts the situation. Third, you imply the question without explicitly stating it. And it frames the problem that the ensuing argument will resolve. Finally, the answer summarizes the solution to the problem.

The body of your composition follows a question-and-answer structure. Each paragraph and section answers an implicit question. All of these questions align with the highest level question implied in your introduction.


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Chapter 3—How to build a pyramid structure

There are two approaches to building a pyramid. First, with the top-down approach, you begin by stating the SCQA. And then, you break down the answer into sections, paragraphs, and individual sentences.

Second, with the bottom-up approach, you begin by listing the different points you want to make. Then you organize those points into paragraphs and sections.

In practice, you’ll probably use both approaches.

Chapter 4—Fine Points of Introductions

Tailor the SCQA approach based on your audience. Be mindful of the tone of your writing. The standard order is “situation-complication-answer,” where the question is implicit. The more direct approach is “answer-situation-complication.” To express a concerned tone, use “complication-situation-answer.” For a more aggressive approach, follow the “question-situation-complication” sequence.

Chapter 5—Deduction and Induction: The Difference

A paragraph should express reasoning using either inductive or deductive logic. Inductive logic means that the argument moves in an upward direction. In other words, the sentences of the paragraph contain distinct ideas. And the topic sentence states the conclusion or interpretation of those ideas. In practice, induction means that you observe different data points and then draw a conclusion. For example, if three of your colleagues call in sick, you could conclude that there’s a cold going around. Or, if they have a penchant for midweek happy hours, you could suspect that they stayed out too late together the night before.

Deductive logic moves in the opposite direction, from the top down. With deductive reasoning, you apply a rule. And the sentences in the paragraph support that rule. For example, you could state that if something has wings and flies, then it is a bird. Airplanes have wings and fly. Therefore, they are birds.

Chapter 6—Imposing Logical Order

The components of an inductive argument must abide by one of three relationships. The first one is time, which means that you list items in order of when they happened. This approach also works for detailing the steps in a process. Second, a relationship based on structure describes all of the parts of a whole. Degree governs the third relationship. Here, you list the factors in order of importance. When it is unrealistic to list all of the components in a group, combine what’s leftover into a category called “other.”

Chapter 7—Summarizing Grouped Ideas

Each topic sentence for a paragraph or section summarizes the ideas that come after it. This summary should present insight as opposed to a blank assertion. An inductive argument reveals the relationship between the points that it summaries and delivers a bold conclusion (i.e., an inductive leap). A deductive argument comments further on the logic presented below it.

Chapter 8—Defining the Problem

Fundamentally, problem solving is about closing gaps between two states: your current state and your desired state. Your current state represents where you are right now. Your desired state, on the other hand, is where you want to be. The gap between them represents a problem. How do you move from one to the other, given your constraints? This process is the essence of problem solving.

Chapter 9—Structuring the Analysis of the Problem

Creating structure is critical to problem solving. The standard problem-solving process is to gather data, state findings, draw conclusions, and recommend actions. However, you need full knowledge of a problem to solve it. And you develop complete understanding by breaking the problem into parts using diagnostic frameworks, including logic trees. They can show physical structure, trace cause-and-effect, and classify possible causes. Logic trees can also generate possible solutions or reveal flaws in grouped ideas. You use an issue analysis to find the answer to a yes or no question, e.g., can we achieve $X in sales by Y date?


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Chapter 10—Reflecting the Pyramid on the Page

You reflect the pyramid in writing by demonstrating the structure and the relationships between different groups. The title of your report will be the governing thought used to initiate your analysis. You organize the more specific sub-arguments section headings and paragraphs. You can list individual points as bullet points or sentences. Transitions demonstrate the relationships between different groups. Here, you often reference something you have already mentioned and highlight how it relates to the next point you will make.

Chapter 11—Reflecting the Pyramid on a Screen

It takes a bit of creativity to apply the pyramid principle to presentation decks. Each slide should feature a central point at the top, similar to a topic sentence in a written memo. Below, in its body, it can feature either text or graphics. Storyboarding is where you prepare what you’re going to say during the presentation. It is a critical step.

Chapter 12—Reflecting the Pyramid in Prose

Theory and practice don’t always align when it comes to translating your ideas to prose. Good ideas often get disguised as weak prose. To avoid this problem, begin by creating an image of what you’re trying to write. Then copy it into words. This approach makes for prose that a reader can absorb and remember.