Improving your impact with the Minto pyramid

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A key challenge for subject matter experts is to improve their impact. Planning your personal editorial calendar is a way to ensure that your blog posts and other communications have some kind of structure to them, and you have thought about how they fit together. One very good approach to use for this planning is Barbara Minto’s pyramid.

The Pyramid Principle

The logic behind the pyramid principle is simple: it exploits our natural, human tendency to look for patterns in everything and group related things together. In practice, it boils down to the idea that you should present ideas in a pyramid structure, grouping together linked ideas in a logical way.

Consultancies like McKinsey use the pyramid principle all the time, and have simplified it to three main points:

  1. Start with the answer

If people only remember one thing about your article or argument, you want it to be the answer. It is worth saying it first, clearly and in one sentence if possible. This avoids people becoming lost in your argument and not appreciating your main point. It is, however, hard for scientists and techies, because they are used to working the other way round: reasons, then conclusion.

  1. Group your supporting arguments together and summarise the underlying points

The pyramid principle says that your main thought—your ‘answer’ or solution—should be supported by, and summarise, the arguments underneath. Each of your supporting arguments should, in turn, be a summary of a number of supporting points. Your audience will group your arguments together for themselves if you don’t: it is human nature to do so. It therefore makes sense to group them yourself, and show them the links that you would like them to make.

  1. Order your arguments logically

All the arguments or points at each level of the pyramid should be equivalent in importance. All the arguments in each vertical group should be related. It therefore follows that those grouped under a particular heading should be both equivalent and related in some way. You could, for example, group them by time: the sequential actions that you need to take to achieve the outcome at the next level. Alternatively, you could group them by structure, covering all the main ideas, or in order of importance.

Using the pyramid to design your personal editorial calendar

It is fairly clear how you could use the pyramid to structure a blog post or presentation. It works equally well, however, for a rolling 12-month plan of blog posts, your personal editorial calendar. Say you wish to do a series of blog posts about your chosen specialist subject. Your first blog post, therefore, needs to set out your stall: it needs to explain why you are an expert on this subject, and what you are going to offer your audience over the next few months as you explore the subject.  In other words, it must set out your ‘answer’.

Your next blog posts might go in one of two directions:

  • You could publish three to five blog posts covering the whole next level of your pyramid—the three to five broad subject areas that you want to discuss. Subsequent blogs could dig down into each area in turn (the horizontal approach, shown by the red bubbles in the diagram below); or
  • You could dig down into each subject area in turn, in detail, then come back to the next when you have thoroughly explored each one (the vertical approach, shown by the green bubbles).

The point is to use one or other approach to make sure the flow of your arguments is logical, to help your audience follow your thinking.

Bonus point: the Rule of Three

There is a fair amount of research that suggests that three is the optimum number at each level. This is because people tend to remember just three or four points at a time, and also because we are programmed to think of three as a natural number—think of fairy tales, for example, with three little pigs, and three bears. McKinsey calls this the ‘rule of three’. It is good practice to think in terms of three, because it forces you to prioritise your arguments, and go for the three most important at each level, rather than having five or ten.

In summary, then, when planning your blog posts: give the answer first, group your arguments logically, and remember the rule of three!

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