Thinking and running have something in common. All of us can run, but if you want to be a race champion you need to learn the right techniques for running faster. Similarly, we can all think, but if you want to think smarter than anyone else, you need to acquire the right techniques.
Barbara Minto was one of the first women MBAs to graduate from Harvard Business School in 1963. After becoming McKinsey & Company’s first-ever female consultant, she was sent to McKinsey’s London office in the late 1960s. Her job was to travel around Europe training McKinsey’s non-native English speakers to deliver clear presentations in English.
In the course of her work, Barbara made an interesting discovery: it wasn’t the English language that was giving the consultants problems with their presentations—but a lack of logic in their thinking. Her solution to this problem was to create the famous Minto Pyramid Principle as a practical thought-organization tool.
She publicized her insights through a book: The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking. I admired it so much that I got my business school GLOBIS to translate it for the Japanese market in the 1990s. Much to Barbara’s astonishment, sales in Japan at one time accounted for half the book’s entire worldwide sales!
At my business school, we regard the ability to think logically, clearly and critically as a crucial business skill. That’s why we introduced a Critical Thinking class two decades ago in 1996—years ahead of most other schools; it remains one of our most popular core courses. Faculty tell me that the discussion skills of students who have taken the Critical Thinking class are quite transformed: they become more constructive, more concise and more to the point.
The pyramid structure is one of the methodologies that we teach in our Critical Thinking class.
Perhaps the most distinctive thing about the pyramid structure is that the conclusion is presented first, supported by a second layer of reasons (which can in turn be supported by a third layer of data or facts).
Ironically, this back-to-front approach guarantees maximum clarity of message. Meanwhile, having three reasons gives your argument greater solidity and balance.
Okay, so how does the pyramid structure work in practice?
Let’s imagine a very practical scenario: You want to ask your boss for a raise.
Casually saying, “Hey, I’m a nice guy so I deserve more money,” probably won’t get you very far. You need to build a structured argument by asking yourself why you deserve that raise.
Start with the conclusion, or the tip of the pyramid.
I deserve a raise because I add value to the company and directly contribute to improved business performance.
Then add the 3 reasons, taking care to ask yourself “So what?” with each, so that you can justify them when challenged.
1. I’ve brought in more clients → So what?
“By bringing in more clients I’ve boosted overall company revenues.”
2. I’m a team builder → So what?
“The fact that I’ve hired and trained a new team shows I can create an environment that’s aligned with the company’s vision and mission.”
3. I’ve upgraded my skill set → So what?
“Upgraded skills mean I can do more faster and deliver higher quality work more efficiently.”
So your pyramid-structure request for a raise would look like this:
The great thing about fitting your thoughts into the pyramid structure is that you can present your argument to fit any time frame.
・If you just have 30 seconds, then give your boss the “elevator pitch”—i.e. the top-of-the-pyramid conclusion only.
・If you have 5 minutes, then give your boss the conclusion plus the three reasons.
・If your boss asks, then you can go on to support your three reasons with factual data.
Once you have internalized this way of thinking, your thoughts will automatically structure themselves into the optimum format for maximum accessibility, adaptability and impact.
The pyramid structure is a fantastic tool: it empowers you to say precisely what you need to say in the manner best suited to persuading the person you are talking to in the time available. You can think and present like the very best McKinsey consultant—without the grind of actually having to work there!
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