The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto is like a 173-page course in Vulcan logic and precise, persuasive writing. Minto began her career at the fabled consultancy McKinsey and the book was recommended to me by an former management consultant.
The pyramid principle of the title refers to her belief that a pyramid structure is the correct and perhaps only way to present information persuasively. She argues:
Controlling the sequence in which you present your ideas is the single most important act necessary to clear writing.
She presents ‘rules’ for structuring any piece of writing:
- Ideas at any level in the pyramid must always be summaries of the ideas grouped below them.
- Ideas in each grouping must always be the same kind of idea.
- Ideas in each grouping must always be logically ordered.
This kind of rigour is helpful in some circumstances and she extends it in subsequent chapters to explain how to write an introduction, how to persuade using logical progression from known facts and almost half the book is dedicated to questioning, checking and rewriting. As the man once said, “the wastepaper basket is the writer’s best friend.”
Journalists (see my review of Writing to Deadline) tend to use an inverted pyramid, putting the conclusion at the top and the details afterwards. Minto wants us to put the problem first and the build a case for the proposed solution afterwards. It is, I suppose, the difference between writing to inform and writing to persuade.
Although it is a short book it feels cold and, well, logical. It is compelling but not a light, bedtime read. It’s a strategy manual and I recommend it to anyone who has to write for business.
However, I would strongly recommend reading something else immediately afterwards to restore the spirit. The Economist Style Guide or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style are both about the tactics of writing and both have more humanity to them.