Thinking and running have something in common.
Anyone can run, but if you want to be a racing champion, you need to learn the techniques for running faster. Similarly, anyone can think, but if you want to think smarter than anyone else, you need the right techniques.
Specifically, you need critical thinking techniques.
There are many frameworks that can help you build your critical thinking, such as the logic tree for problem-solving or the MECE principle for logic checking. But if you’re looking to build your persuasiveness, the Pyramid Principle—or, as we call it at GLOBIS University, the pyramid structure—is one of the best options around.
Barbara Minto and the Pyramid Principle
The pyramid structure is a critical thinking tool developed by Barbara Minto that can help you organize your thoughts for stronger communication.
In 1963, Minto was one of the first women to earn her MBA from Harvard Business School. She went on to become consulting firm McKinsey & Company’s first-ever female consultant and was subsequently sent to the company’s London office. Her job was to travel around Europe training ESL staff to deliver clear presentations in English.
In the course of her work, Minto made an interesting discovery: It wasn’t the English language that was giving the consultants problems. It was a lack of logical order in their thinking.
Her solution was a practical thought-organization tool: the Minto Pyramid Principle. She publicized her insights in The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking. This book is so impressive that we had it translated into Japanese at GLOBIS University in the 1990s. Much to Minto’s astonishment, sales in Japan at one time accounted for half of the book’s worldwide sales!
Minto’s Pyramid Principle Logic
So how does the pyramid structure work?
Perhaps the most distinctive thing about the pyramid structure is that it starts with the answer. The conclusion is presented first, supported by a second layer of key messages (reasons), which can in turn be supported by a third layer of evidence (data or facts).
Ironically, this back-to-front approach guarantees maximum clarity of message. Key messages give your argument greater solidity and balance.
Imagine 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 and communicating that logic.
The top of the pyramid structure is the conclusion. So here’s a possible conclusion you could start with:
“I deserve a raise because I add value to the company and directly contribute to improved business performance.”
Under your conclusion, you’ll present the ideas that show your logic. These are your key messages. But don’t stop there.
Busy executives often say no if they can’t see a logical line of reasoning to a proposal. So you’ll need to check the logic and ensure everything holds up to scrutiny. So do a little internal question and answer.
Ask yourself, “So what?” for each key message.
Key message 1: I’ve brought in more clients.
So what? By bringing in more clients, I’ve boosted overall company revenue.
Key message 2: I’m a team builder.
So what? I’ve hired and trained a new team. That shows I can create an environment that’s aligned with the company’s vision and mission.
Key message 3: I’ve upgraded my critical thinking skillset.
So what? Upgraded cognitive skills enable me to do more faster and deliver higher quality work more efficiently.
To ensure your pyramid structure (and by extension, your argument) is sound, confirm that your points are MECE.
MECE stands for mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive. In laymen’s terms, that means your logic has no gaps or overlaps. You don’t want your boss thinking you’re presenting a single key message in multiple ways. All that will do is prove your critical thinking needs work.
Your pyramid structure for a raise could look like this:
Flexing the Pyramid Principle
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 have thirty seconds, give your boss the elevator pitch: the conclusion only.
If you have five minutes, give your boss the conclusion, then summarize your supporting arguments. If your boss asks “So what?” then you can go on to support your three key messages with factual data.
Once you have internalized thinking in a pyramid structure, your thoughts will be formatted for maximum accessibility, adaptability, and impact.
Critical thinking and problem solving are crucial business skills. That’s why we introduced Critical Thinking as a class early on at GLOBIS University, in 1996—years ahead of most other MBA schools. Faculty members report that the discussion skills of students who take the class are noticeably transformed. They become more constructive, more concise, and more methodical. It remains one of our most popular core courses to this day.