Repost. This is from 4 years ago and covers the Minto’s pyramid principle – one of the most important concepts in executive communication and logical structuring of arguments. This is really big at all the big 4 and big 3. It is the scaffolding of management consulting thinking. My revised thoughts (2016) shown in red color.
Consultants must structure their thinking. This is the only way to present your ideas clearly to clients. One excellent tool is the pyramid principle by an ex-McKinsey consultant by the name of Barbara Minto. She authored a book called The Minto Pyramid Principle here (affiliate link) which essentially defined the way consultants structure most of their presentations. Most consultants will know what the pyramid principle is, even if they don’t know the author.
Consultants often use groupings to clarify and simplify a problems. Consultants are just skeptical enough to believe that many business problems are similar. Too often clients are entrenched in their industry, corporate culture, and personal experience to rise above and see the root causes or drivers. The common client critique of consultants is, “Well, of course, I could have told you that.” The [unspoken] consulting rebuttal might be, “Yes, but you did not have the clarity of thought and persuasion to get your point across.”
Pyramid Principle: Just like the name implies, the idea is that the presentation logic looks like a pyramid. The main recommendation is on top. It is built on mid-level recommendations, each of which are supported by smaller facts, data, analysis, benchmarks etc . . .
In the graphic below you can see that the top of the pyramid (executive summary) has 3 recommendations. Each of those recommendations have supporting pages.
- Page 1 = executive summary
- Page 2-4 = recommendation #1 and supporting facts
- Page 5-7 = recommendation #2 and supporting facts
This type of presentation starts with the conclusion first. It is a tops-down type of thinking that is very structured and how executives think. Big idea followed by smaller ideas. This format helps you “cut to the chase” quickly, which is good for many reasons:
- Executives have a short attention span, so it is good to say what you want to say before they start asking questions
- This logic is very easy to follow. “I recommend A,B,C. Recommendation A is supported by facts 1,2,3”
- By giving them the recommendation and logic up front, it allows the audience to focus on the areas they have the most interest
- It forces the consultant to really hone the storyline to the most essential parts (no long-winded prose and rambling slides)
Yes, I know that most high-school term papers used a more bottom-up type of reasoning where the punchline was at the end of the 50 page paper. Trust me, that is not how you want to present in the boardroom. You do not want to start with lots of boring data points and save the good stuff to the end.
Structured thinking. Consultants may not be smarter than you – but we are more structured in our thinking. We typically lay out the broad boundaries of the problem, then methodically drive towards a recommendation showing you the steps in the logic; we solve the math problem, but take deliberate (often painful) steps to show you the work. All the assumptions, sample size, calculations, considerations, risks, and details are there. But we organize it with the conclusion first.
Caveat: Two types of presentations where you won’t use the pyramid principle:
- An interim presentation of facts: In this case, the consultant is working with the client counterpart and walking them through information and some of the insights. Nothing too heavy. Not a recommendation. Just information sharing.
- A leave-behind deck: Here the consultant has a presentation that is meant to truly stand-on-its-own, so the font is smaller, and it is written in more long-form prose. It is more of a guide or playbook, than a hard-hitting million dollar recommendation
Even if you don’t follow this rigid format precisely, do create an executive summary (a 1 pager) that the executive can “tear off” and carry around. Make it easy for the client executive to sell your wares. Putting all your thoughts (6-8 week project) into an executive summary is intellectually rigorous – you have to know what the key points are.
If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter. – Blaise Pascal
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough – Albert Einstein
Should I buy the book? It’s up to you. It’s a bit of a boring read here (affiliate link). As a consulting trick, just go to amazon.com and read the 45 reviews posted. That will get you 80% of the way there.
Exercise #1: Find the best presentation you did – one that you are proud of – and see how well you used the pyramid structure. Recommendations up front, then supported by analysis, insights, and implications.
Exercise #2: Take 15 minutes and try this out. Take the last client presentation you made and create a list of bullet points in the pyramid structure shown above:
- pg 1 – executive summary with all recommendations (A,B,C)
- pg 2 – details on A (the analysis, insight)
- pg 3 – details on B (the analysis, insight)
- pg 4 – details on C (the analysis, insight)
As extra credit, write the titles of each slides so they tell the story. You should be able to just read the titles of each page and know what the presentation is about. There is an art and craft to writing the titles of PowerPoint pages.