Effective Presentation Strategy with Minto Pyramid Principle

 

By Omodiaogbe Samuel

February 18, 2024

Introduction

Effective communication is more than just exchanging information. It involves clear transmission of message and with the acknowledgment that the conveyed message is understood by the intended audience. Being able to communicate effectively is one of the most important life skills to learn as it gives your writing, speaking, and even thinking professionalism. Specifically, as a consultant, the importance of creating a clear and persuasive presentations that effectively communicate your ideas to your clients is vital. Ideally, whatever form of communication you want to make, you want to craft a clear and simple message without losing the essential details. What’s more, you want to do it in a way that grabs and keeps your audience attention. However, creating a convincing argument is a hard work. This happens whether you’re trying to present your finding to the client, or even creating a simple email. It can be difficult to know where to start and how to present it. A successful, client-oriented presentation needs a clear structure that leads and guides the audience from the introduction to the main part, and to the conclusion. This is where the Minto Pyramid Principle becomes important

The Pyramid Principle

The Minto Pyramid Principle is a communication and writing technique developed by Barbara Minto a former management at McKinsey & Co. The principle is designed to enhance the clarity and effectiveness of written and verbal communication by structuring ideas and information in a hierarchical order. The framework is based on the notion that ideas should be presented logically, starting with the main point and then supporting it with evidence and data. This is based on the premise that an argument is easier to understand – and far more convincing – when it is arranged in a pyramidal hierarchy. Minto realized that unlike how we usually tell a good story, where we build suspense by delaying the resolution of a key issue until the very end, that in a business presentation context, we should do the exact opposite by starting with the answer. This approach ensures that the main message is immediately clear to the audience, allowing them to grasp the key takeaway before delving into supporting information. In her book “The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking” she suggested that information should be organized and presented in a pyramid-like structure, with the most important points or conclusions at the top, and the supporting details, and evidence below. The book provides answer to questions like, “How can I grab my audience’s attention in just a couple of minutes?” and “How can I create a compelling story with a logical structure that is easy to understand and remember?” The Minto Pyramid Principle is widely used in business, consulting, and professional communication to improve the impact and understanding of reports, presentations, and documents. It aids in decision-making, problem-solving, and conveying complex ideas concisely

Key Components of the Framework

The logic behind the framework is that the model should be used to organize thinking before beginning to write. Therefore, the writing job is made easier if the writer define in advance what he wants the end product to look like. Then, all he has to do is to work out the steps to get there. So, once you grasp the structure, you grasp the message.

 

The Structure of the Pyramid

 

Answer -> Supporting Argument -> Evidence

  • Start with the recommendation/answer/solution upfront
  • Back up that recommendation with a handful of supporting arguments
  • Build trust in your arguments using supporting facts and data
1: The Key Message: Answer

Applying the top-down structure of a pyramid in communication methods means that a direct answer is given to the question that has been asked. At the top of the pyramid is the core message, including a clear Situation, Complication, Question, and Answer.  Conventionally, the conclusion in a text or presentation is given after the facts have been presented, and all analyses and supporting ideas have been discussed. But Minto pyramid approach is the opposite. With the pyramid approach, Barbara recommends that the answer should first be given in a clear and concrete form. Only then must the supporting reasons or motivations behind the answer be given. The reason of starting with the answer is that people do not remember new information as much as we think they might. Research has shown that people can only hold four “chunks” of information in their working memory at once. Therefore, applying that to the pyramid principle, if your audience can remember the main takeaway as well as your three key insights, then, that is probably the best-case scenario.

 

  1. Supporting Arguments

Beneath the core message are supporting arguments, which should be logically grouped and summarized. Each argument should resemble a mini-pyramid with its own single thought and supporting details. Essentially, now that the key point has been laid down, the arguments, reasons or motivation for giving the presentation will then follow. According to the Principle, this level is about joining all arguments in main points. Each point represents a summary of specific support for the recommendation or the answer from the first step.

 

  1. Evidence: Data and Facts

The bottom of the pyramid contains the data, evidence, and facts that validate the supporting arguments. This level provides substance and credibility to the message. Here, the pyramid branches out from each argument to the lowest level where supporting details and ideas are given which show the validity of the presented arguments.

 

                                  Hierarchical Structure of the Pyramid

                               The Executive Summary

Your presentation executive summary, typically represented by the introduction slide, is at the top of the pyramid and should include your key conclusion or recommendation. Crafting this executive summary first can help you organize the body of your presentation. Serious mistake people make is waiting to write the introduction after completing the document. 90% of all the thinking you do takes place in the introduction. Therefore, if you have one hour to write a document, and it takes you 45 minute to come up with the introduction, then that is about the right balance of time. Essentially, if you get the introduction right, you can do the rest in 15 minutes. An introduction is meant to make it easy for the reader to push aside what is already in their head so that they can focus their total attention on you. To effectively create the introduction, we use the SCQA logic

 

                                                     The SCQA logic

Minto suggests the formula for hooking the reader should be based on: situation, complication, question and answer.

Situation: Situation is the context of the problem you are trying to solve and consists of the simple and indisputable truth of the matter. It describes what is happening or what has happened in the past that is relevant to your topic It’s the first step that involves looking beyond the symptoms since it answers the “why”.

Example: “For years, First Bank has shown a steady increase in yearly revenue and profitability.”

Complication: What is the factor causing the conflict, problem, or opportunity? These factors should compel the reader to act, or at the very least, continue reading. In this part, we assess the reason behind the problem. We call it “the so what’ of the problem.

Example: This quarter, First Bank profitability unexpectedly declined, first time in company history.

Question: This is the main question that your presentation aims to answer. It should be clear, specific, and relevant to your client’s goals and needs. It involves formulating a hypothesis, by asking questions. Here, you pose questions about the situation

Example: “How can First Bank return to profitability again?

Answer: This is the main point you’re trying to make. Here you may also summarize your main supporting arguments to help orient your audience to where your presentation is going. Essentially, this is the recommendation that solves the problem and ensures the story has a happy ending. In this section, you come up with answers to the questions formulated in the previous section.

Example: For First Bank to return to profitability, it needs to do two things:  

1: Increase revenues

2: Decrease costs

 

SCQA Process: Note that the examples given above are simplified. On the execute summary, you need to be more detailed on the situation; then the storyline should give a vivid description of the complication; the questions should emanate from the situation and complication; while the answer should be your solution to the problem. It’s all about storytelling. You don’t need to list the SCQM in their order, you use paragraph for the transition.  

 

The first step is to determine what the Subject is. Here, the subject is the profitability. When you start with the subject, it triggers your mind to start working. If you find out that you can’t determine the subject, don’t worry, go on to the question which may reveal the subject to you. So, what question are we answering in the readers mind here? When he finishes reading, what question will he know about the subject that he did not know before? In our case: How can the bank return to profitability? At this point, you start to check your thinking, because if you find that your question is not about the subject, then either the subject or the question has to change. When giving the answer at the very beginning, you might feel a need to think through its merits from the very start.  This is known as the “BLUF” method, or “Bottom Line Up Front.” As a matter of fact, you may not know the answer precisely, but you will know roughly the kind of thing you want to say. However, once the audience has been given the answer or hypothesis at the start, they can begin critically analyzing the supporting argument that follows.

Why is this approach effective?
  • Time Efficiency: Executives are constantly pressed for time as they’re accustomed to digesting information swiftly. Therefore, they can become restless if they feel you’re beating around the bush. As a result, by leading with your recommendation, you respect their time.
  • Big Picture Thinking: Executives would like to prioritize overarching strategies over minutiae. Presenting your conclusion upfront aligns with this mindset, by letting them quickly grasp your main point.
  • Persuasiveness: Directness conveys confidence. When you state your recommendation assertively from the start, it underscores your conviction. It ensures your decisiveness and reenforces your persuasiveness.

Supporting Arguments

This is the second stage of the Pyramid Principle, where the answer is supported with relevant arguments to help test the validity of the hypothesis.  Now people know what your answer is, but they do not necessarily agree. You need to convince them that your statement is strong and relies on solid logic. Supporting arguments are the reasons and evidence for a central point or idea. They help to provide clarity and concise reasoning to a persuasive argument. Supporting arguments are essential in building a strong and logical structure for the answer you provided. Each argument should resemble a mini-pyramid with its own single thought and supporting details. The supporting arguments should be MECE (Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive).

The Pyramid Principle advocates that ideas should always form a pyramid under a single thought. The single thought is the answer to the executive’s question. Underneath the single thought, you should summarize the next level of supporting ideas and arguments.

For instance, if your recommendation centered on decreasing cost to improve profitability, then the three supporting arguments could be “minimizing the variables costs”, “gaining economics of scale by merging the insurance division with the commercial banking, and thereby decreasing the fixed costs” and “downsizing the workforce by introducing technology to handle most of the routine operations”.

Horizontal and Vertical Logic

The pyramid enables you to create a question-answer dialogue with your reader. So, you continue to raise and answer questions until you reach the point in each leg when there are no more questions logically, then you stop. The logical group, sort and summarize your supporting arguments. Each of these arguments should typically look like a mini-pyramid. Ideally, for the answer you provided, you should have three supporting arguments. You might ask why? Three is a magical number because it is easy to remember and it helps you focus on the three most important arguments. You simply sound more structured and prepared when you focus on three main arguments. So, if you have more than three arguments, try to resize them to fit into three core arguments

So, what is vertical and horizontal logic? How does it work?

Vertical Logic: Vertical logic is the storyline, the question-and-answer dialogue. As you travel down the Pyramid, you start with your main idea, then, posing questions, and answering them with your supporting arguments. Every piece of information on the pyramid base reinforces the point above it. The sequence in which you present your ideas is the most important aspect to improve the clarity of your writing, and you can control the sequence.

Horizontal Logic: Horizontal logic is the kind of reasoning you use to understand the information being presented to you. For horizontal relationships, the supporting points relate to each other, using either deductive or inductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning is what most people are familiar with. It involves making a general statement, and using specific examples to validate that statement. Inductive reasoning on the other hand, is inferring a specific statement from a set of general supporting arguments

The point at the top (because I am a bird, I fly) is a summary of the group below. The second set of boxes comments on what is stated on the first box. The most important thing you have to remember about deductive reasoning is to zero-in on the second box (I am a bird). If the second point comments on the first, then you are arguing deductively. But if the second point does not comment on the first, then you are arguing inductively. Whenever you see the second point commenting on the first, you know you are using deductive reasoning, and so you must have a “Therefore” point

Inductive Reasoning

Inductive Reasoning: Here you are not playing with words. But you see a series of things you feel they are the same kind. You group them together, decide what is the same about them and draw inference based on similarity. It’s a bit more complex than deductive reasoning. That is because you have to get two things right, the main point and the horizontal relationship of the supporting arguments. The main point here is that the ideas in the grouping have to be properly related. Generally, inductive reasoning answers one of three questions.

  • Why?
  • How?
  • How do you know?

The essential point here is that if the first idea is reason to do something all the other ideas have to be reason. Here our main point is “Sumo Wrestlers”, and the vertical line reenforces that key idea: “they train a lot,” “they eat a lot,” and “they often compete.”

If the question raised is both “why” and “how”, then you decide which question to answer first. If you answer the Why question first, you will be reasoning deductively. But if you answer the How question first, you will be reasoning Inductively. At the key levels, it is better to answer questions inductively than deductively. For example

Remember: the purpose of bringing a set of ideas is to see a relationship between them which allows you to express the insight. If there is no similarity, then, there can’t be insight

Importantly, never combine inductive and deductive reasoning in the same grouping.

Supporting Data and Facts

Supporting data and facts that are crucial for building a strong and persuasive argument in the Minto Pyramid Principle. This is the base of the Minto Pyramid, so it should be the most content-heavy section. Statistical and factual information can help the main point or idea and provide clarity and validity to the discussion. Unlike conventional approach to presenting data, the Pyramid Principal method uses supporting facts and data after the hypothesis. When using supporting data and facts, it is vital to ensure the information is accurate and relevant to the argument. It should also be presented clearly and concisely through graphs or charts to help the audience understand its significance. In the Pyramid Principle, all data should support the Argument chapter it belongs to. Once you get down to the data layer, you’re proving the substantiating evidence behind the Arguments and the Assertion. It’s important here to only include relevant data that supports your Argument, instead of just dumping data on to a slide. You should be data-driven, not data-heavy.

 

Examples of supporting data and facts include:

  • Market research data, for example, that supports the need for a new product or service
  • Case studies of successful implementations of a proposed solution
  • Customer feedback that helps the main point or idea
  • Financial data, for example, that demonstrates the impact of a proposed change on the organization’s bottom line

 

When using supporting data and facts, it is vital to ensure the information is accurate and relevant to the argument. It should also be presented clearly and concisely through graphs or charts to help the audience understand its significance. Also, using supporting data and facts can also help anticipate and address potential objections or concerns the audience may have. If you have more than one supporting argument, you should take the time to structure each argument. For example, write the first supporting argument, followed by its evidence, before moving on to the second supporting argument and its related evidence. However, if you have a lot of data to support your arguments, you may only provide a brief of them and keep the details in appendix

 

MECE:  Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive (MECE). This means that each slide should cover one main topic without overlapping with other slides, and that all the relevant aspects of the topic should be addressed. Barbara recommends dividing your data into categories using the MECE framework. The MECE framework makes it easier to analyze your data and glean valuable insights that support your bottom-line argument. Ideally, when applying MECE to the Pyramid Principle, each level of the pyramid can use the MECE principle to ensure insights and ideas are grouped such that they are distinct and easy to comprehend.

 

Essentially, you need to continue to push your audience to respond to your idea with question of why? or how? That is very important because you’re indirectly forcing them to ask for information you want to give them.  But you don’t need to go down to the same level for each point. You only go down for each as far it’s required to answer the questions you have raised in the audience/reader’s mind.  What goes into the supporting argument are questions you raised in the audience minds because you are telling them something they don’t know. Therefore, what goes into the boxes below are answers to the questions. What the pyramid does is that it enables you to create a question-answer dialogue with your audience. So, you continue to raise and answer questions until you reach the point in each leg when there are no more questions, and then you stop

 

Characteristics of Pyramid Principle

 

  • Clear Structure: Structure is the hallmark of the principle. A solid structure can help you present your ideas clearly. It can also help the audience to perceive you as an organized and confident presenter
  • Improved Decision-Making: Clarity and hierarchy of ideas aid in more informed decision-making. Decision-makers can quickly identify and prioritize critical information, leading to better choices and outcomes
  • Impactful Communication: By placing the main message at the beginning, the Minto Pyramid Principle ensures that the audience immediately grasps the central point. This results in more impactful and effective communication.
  • Problem-Solving Tool: The Pyramid Principle aids in problem-solving and decision-making by presenting information in a structured manner. It enables you to assess critical information quickly and make informed choices.
  • Time Efficiency: By presenting the main message upfront, the Pyramid Principle saves time for both the communicator and the audience. As a result, it enables more efficient communication and decision-making processes
  • Application Versatility: The principle is versatile and applicable to various forms of communication, including written reports, presentations, speeches, pitches, emails, and discussions. Its adaptability makes it a valuable tool for professionals in diverse fields.
  • Professionalism: Applying the Minto Pyramid Principle to communication materials and presentations conveys professionalism and a commitment to effective communication. It enhances the reputation of the consultant or presenter
  • Storytelling: The idea is that you need to grab your audience attention from the get-go. Executives have a short attention span, so the Pyramid Principle enables you to lead your audience from one stage to another in a storytelling process

How to Apply Minto Principles to Your Slide Presentation

  • Use bullet points to break down your message into sub-points. Each bullet point should be a complete sentence that supports your headline.
  • Avoid using more than four bullet points per slide, as that can make your slide look cluttered and confusing
  • Use headlines that summarize your main message. Avoid vague or generic headlines that do not convey any information or insight
  • Use charts, graphs, tables, or diagrams to illustrate your data and evidence. Choose the right type of visual aid for your purpose and audience. Make sure visuals are clear, simple, and consistent with your message.
  • Review and edit slides for clarity, accuracy, and impact. Check your slides for spelling, grammar, and formatting errors. Make sure your slides are consistent in style and tone.
  • Use colors, fonts, and icons to enhance slide design. Use colors to highlight key points, fonts to emphasize headings or labels, and icons to add visual clarity.
  • Stay focused, consistent and precise: When making a presentation, keep it as focused as possible. Think about the goal you want to achieve and align your content accordingly
  • Involve your audience: No matter how long the presentation is, monologues are never interesting. Interact with your audience. Get them involved by asking questions or start a brainstorming session to find a solution to a problem
  • Don’t forget to transition: You might already know what you’ re going to say but your audience may not. Therefore, organize your slides to build suspense and keep your audience engaged.
  • A satisfying conclusion: Use the end of your presentation to give your audience a clear overview of the presentation and the way forward. By that, your audience will leave the room with a positive feeling

Rules for Creating the Presentation Headings

  • A heading should never sit alone: Headings are used to split up a broad concept into its units, so by using it, what you’re basically suggesting is that another segment is coming up.
  • The tone should be consistent: If you start a header with a verb, the others should be verb too. Create a pattern and stick to it.
  • Limit the wording to the essence of the idea: Headings should be concise and simple
  • Don’t treat headings as part of the text: Sometimes your audience could skim straight over the heading. Therefore, it’s best to start a paragraph as if the heading isn’t there.
  • Introduce the heading: Briefly explain the intention of the grouping that will follow so your audience/readers know what it relates to.
  • Don’t overdo it: Too many headings will create noise that could hurt rather than help the audience/reader.

                                               Conclusion

The Minto Pyramid is a tool that gives communication clarity and efficiency, as it helps you to lead with the conclusion. The framework is a powerful tool that help consultants and business professionals communicate their ideas effectively. The Pyramid Principle is based on a top-down approach whereby you first highlight the most critical points, and then, you support them with data and facts at the base of the pyramid. Using the Pyramid Principle, consultants and business professionals can motivate action and drive change in an organization. The rationale of the Pyramid Principle is based on the idea that busy executives have limited time and attention spans. Therefore, presenting information concisely by highlighting the most critical points is essential. This approach helps avoid confusion and ensures the audience understands the message conveyed. However, the Pyramid Principle has complications and requires careful thought and planning to implement successfully. Nevertheless, the advantages of using it far outweigh the demerits, and therefore, it is a valuable tool for any consultant or business professional.

 

 

Omodiaogbe Samuel, MSc. CMC, ChMC, FIMC

Omodiaogbe is a Strategic Management Consultant, and he the Principal Consultant/CEO at Vast Thinking Consults Ltd where he help organizations and business leaders to create superior value. Omodiaogbe holds BSc. and MSc. in Economics. Also, he is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC), a Chartered Management Consultant (ChMC), and a Fellow, Institute of Management Consultants, Nigeria. He is an Instructor on Coursera, where he teaches 25 courses in Strategic Management. Omodiaogbe is one of the world’s leading learners on Coursera and Edx with over 500 Certificates from top-ranked Universities, Business Schools, and Organizations.

Contact him:
Email; somodiaogbe@vastthinking.com.ng
Visit: www.vastthinking.com.ng

 

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