Irrational Exuberance!

Notes on The Pyramid Principle.

October 1, 2018. Filed under bookreview

tl;dr - it's worth reading Barbara Minto's The Pyramid Principle.

Although it's not universally true, I've found that as folks move into more senior roles, they spend a lot more time writing. The nature of these documents vary depending on your role--strategies, presentations, memos, announcements, email, etc--but your written word often becomes your most important medium of communication. I'm fortunate to have spent a lot of time writing over the past decade, in addition to attending a liberal arts college, so this shift has generally has been something I've enjoyed.

However, some folks that I've worked with across various roles have been much less comfortable writing than speaking. For these folks, becoming more proficient̉ writers can be a drag on their career progression, and I've been looking for ways to help folks improve their writing.

The biggest challenge is simply that I've developed my writing in a very unscalable way. My high school and college environments required a heavy writing load, and each assignment was edited and critiqued. That feedback along with a decade of writing on this blog improved my writing, but it's not very practical advice to give someone looking to improve.

When I first started thinking about helping folks improve their structured written communication, I read this article on the Pyramid Method, which summarized Barbara Minto's The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking, and over the past few days I spent some time working through it.

Here are some notes.

"The demands of logic and the limitations of a reader's ability to take in information dictate that this structure will always be pyramidal in shape — hence The Pyramid Principle."

This is effectively the premise of the entire book. Will you be convinced? Probably. I was.

"Formally separating the thinking process from the writing process, so that you can complete your thinking before you begin to write."

This seems very obvious, but I'm not sure I've ever articulated this thought! Some of the hardest business writing to read comes when the author changes their mind part way through and then tries to retrofit instead of rewrite. Although this has long been obviously good advice, it's taken me a very long time to actually follow it.

"It is the order in which you present your thinking that makes your writing clear or unclear, and you cause confusion in the reader's mind when you do not impose the proper order. Imposing the proper order means creating a comprehensive structure that identifies the major ideas and their flow, and organizes the minor ideas to support them."

This quote is also a great expression of something I couldn't previously articulate. It's very clear when something is confusing, but it's not always clear how to give someone feedback on why, and I think this ordering bit helps.

"By deliberately forcing yourself to think first and write later in the manner it suggests, you should be able quite dramatically (a) to cut down the time you normally need to product a final draft, (b) to increase its clarify, and (c) to decrease its length."

The idea of optimizing for "time to final draft" as opposed to "time to first draft" is a really important one. I've found that I typically write a single draft for most things I write these days, but only start writing once the ideas are solidified.

This is also, fwiw, how I write blog posts now. I plot out my main points, write the introductory hook, and then iterate on both points and hook until the post's structure comes together. This lets me iterate on structure cheaply until, only moving on to writing the core content once it's stabilized.

"Almost everyone finds [writing] a chore and wishes [they] were better at it. And many people are told specifically that they need to improve if they want to progress."

This alludes to what was on my mind when I started looking for ways to help invest into folks' writing. The idea that this is a very frequent challenge for folks and yet that there are so few structured tools for helping folks improve is a bit distressing.

I couldn't find a great quote to pull, but Minto goes on to argue that there are two generaly kinds of issues with folks' writing: style issues (which are very hard to fix, require repetitive training to address, like wordy sentences) and then structure. Structure is much easier to fix.

"The mind automatically sorts information into distinctive pyramidal groupings in order to comprehend it. Any grouping of ideas is easier to comprehend if it arrives presorted into its pyramid. This suggests that every written document should be deliberately structured to form a pyramid of ideas."

Fixing structure is moving everything into a pyramid.

"All mental processes apparently utilize this grouping and summarizing process, so that the information in a person's mind might be thought of as being organized into one giant conglomeration of related pyramids."

Well, not just one pyramid, but rather pyramids of pyramids!

"Controlling the sequence in which you present your ideas is the single most important act necessary to clear writing. The clearest sequence is always to give the summarizing idea before you give the individual ideas being summarized. I cannot emphasize this point too much."

This hints at something I've noticed, which is that folks often bury the lede in their professional writing. Particularly when writing for executives, I've found that it's most useful to state your conclusion immediately, which allows folks who agree with your conclusion to stop reading. (In business writing I find that if folks agree with your conclusion, they're usually not too worried about how you got there.)

"If you think for a moment about what you actually do when you write, you can see that you develop your major ideas by thinking in this bottom-up manner."

Bottoms up thinking is good for developing your idea, but bad for communicating it. This is why decoupling into thinking and writing is useful. (It's fine to think in writing, just don't try to reuse the thinking bits for communicating to others. Very similar to "plan to throw one away" from Fred Brooks.)

"You can define in advance whether or not you have built the structure properly by checking to see whether your ideas relate to each other in a way that would permit them to form pyramidal groups. Specifically, they must obey three rules: (1) ideas at any level in the pyramid must always be summaries of the ideas grouped below them, (2) ideas in each grouping must always be the same kind of idea, (3) ideas in each grouping must always be logically ordered."

In addition to being good for checking your own writing, these three rules strike me as remarkably good tools for providing structured feedback for others on their writing.

"There are only four possible logical ways in which to order a set of ideas: deductively, chronologically, structurally, comparatively."

This is a fairly abstract idea, but I think pretty powerful if you spend some time thinking through what each of these categories means. (For me, at least, this sentence is too dense to really comprehend in a quick skim.)

"The pyramid dictates a rigid set of sub structures that can serve to speed the discovery process. These are: the vertical relationship between points and sub points, the horizontal relationship within a set of sub points, the narrative flow of the introduction."

The idea of vertical and horizontal relationships for the body of a document and then a narrative introduction are pretty powerful, and in retrospect I've seen this done in some of the stronger professional writing I've seen.

"The way to ensure total reader attentions, therefore, is to refrain from raising any questions in the reader's mind before you are ready to answer them."

I've absolutely not thought about writing this way, but I can see how this very clear structure of echoing questions and answers that a reader would have makes quite a bit of sense.

"A great value of the pyramid structure is that it forces visual recognition of this vertical relationship on you as you work out your thinking. Any point you make must raise a question in the reader's mind, which you must answer horizontally on the line below."

If some of these quotes are coming across as a bit too abstract, the diagrams in the book help illustrate the pyramid point a bit more than these exerpts do.

"You write primarily to tell people what they don't know. But a reader wants to find out what he doesn't know only if he needs to do so. If he has no need, he will have no question, and vice versa."

Another point emphasizing why it pays to start with the conclusion. If folks already agree with your answer, let them stop reading immediately, since they're not part of your target audience.

"It should begin by establishing for the reader the time and the place of a Situation. In that Situation something will have occurred (known as the Complication) that caused him to raise (or would cause him to raise) the Question to which your document will give him the Answer."

This is the formula for an introductory statement, which is then gone into a bit more detail in the following quotes.

"1. Draw a box. This represent the box at the top of your pyramid. Write down in it the subject you are discussing."

Pick the subject of your document.

"2. Decide the Question. Visualize your reader. To whom are you writing, and what question do you want to have answered in his mind about the Subject when you have finished writing?"

Understand what the issue being discussed and your reader.

"3. Write down the Answer, if you know it."

Often you already know the answer you think is best, so supply it.

"4. Identify the Situation. Next you want to prove that you have the clearest statement of the Question and the Answer that you can formulate at this stage. To do that, you take the Subject, move up to the Situation, and make the first noncontroversial statement about it you can make. What is the first thing you can say about it to the reader that you know he will agree is true — either because he knows it, or because it is historically true and easily checkable?"

Then articulate why it's even relevant to discuss this topic. Sometimes I've thought of this bit as the business value of the topic at hand.

"5. Develop the Complication. Now you say to yourself, 'So What?' This should lead you to think of what happened in that Situation to raise the Question. Something went wrong, perhaps, some problem arose, or some logical discrepancy became apparent. What happened in the situation to trigger the question?"

This is expanding why a decision needs to be made. There are far more things that we could choose to focus on than we have time to invest, so it's important to be able to justify focusing on this topic.

"6. Recheck the Question and Answer. The statement of the Complication should immediately raise the Question you have already written down. If it does not, then change it to the one it does raise. Or perhaps you have the wrong Complication, or the wrong Question, and must think again."

This is a final gut check that your overall document makes sense.


Much of the time you already know what you want to say when you start writing, but sometimes it's not the case. In that situation, the formula for uncovering your pyramid is:

"1. List all the points you think you want to make." "2. Work out the relationships between them." "3. Draw conclusions."

Then it supplies some tips on how to develop arguments:

"1. Always try top down first." "2. Use the Situation as the starting point for thinking through the introduction." "3. Don't omit to think through the introduction." "4. Always put historical chronology in the introduction." "5. Limit the introduction to what the reader will agree is true." "6. Be sure to support all Key Line points."

Then the book moves on to an introduction to logic. There are four rules you can use to critique a logical argument:

"1. You can question the general order of the ideas in a grouping." "2. You can question their particular source in your problem-solving process." "3. You can question your summary statement about them." "4. You can question the prose in which you express them."

Finally, one last call out of how unstructured thinking that leads to bad writing:

"Most writers don't state the implications of their groupings. As we have seen, their tendency is to tie together ideas that have a general rather than a specific relationship, so that nothing is directly implied. Consequently, they are forced to cap them with what I call intellectually blank assertions."

Minto's idea of intellectually blank assertions are an interesting one! If you read through a proposal's introduction and can't find anything concrete that it's proposed, or that it's proposing a truism, then you're probably reading such an assertion.