Book review: The Pyramid Principle

The Pyramid Principle Cover 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:

  1. Ideas at any level in the pyramid must always be summaries of the ideas grouped below them.
  2. Ideas in each grouping must always be the same kind of idea.
  3. 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.

7 Responses to Book review: The Pyramid Principle

  1. Tom Miller September 8, 2006 at 4:21 am #

    I highly recommend you review Barbara’s new edition. It is only available through her Website but will blow you away with new content and examples.

    Great column.

  2. andy November 20, 2008 at 5:22 pm #

    this is very interesting stuff

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Forward Blog » Blog Archive » Forward Podcast #9 :: Writing with Matthew Stibbe - September 1, 2006

    […] 00:13: Podcast introduction. 02:08: Marcel Goldstein explains why writing is a critical skill for young PR pros. 04:47: Paull introduces Matthew Stibbe and asks him to outline his writing history and explain how he developed his passion for writing. 08:10: Matthew shares some general strategies for young writers to improve their writing. His first point is to ’see what works for you’. 09:30: Matthew’s second piece of advice – have a look at what some other people suggest and see if it works for you. Suggests The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto, Writing to Deadline by Don Murray and On Writing by Steven King. 12:18: Matthew’s third tip – read, read, read, read, read. 13:18: Matthew’s fourth tip – focus on proofreading. 15:26: Matthew’s final tip – a couple of pieces of technical advice: focus on your lead, use shorter sentences and words, find a simple way to explain something by pretending you’re at the pub having a beer. 18:57: Paull asks Matthew how young PR professionals can help improve the standard of writing in our profession. 20:43: Matthew outlines what he thinks goes wrong with PR writing. His advice: Don’t let pieces of writing be written by committee and write from the perspective of the journalist and the reader, not your client. 23:40: Matthew rallies against hype-words, jargon and ‘Franken-quoting’. 29:37: Paull concludes the podcast. […]

  2. Bad Language / 62 ways to improve your press releases - August 7, 2007

    […] an argument. As an alternative to the story-telling approach, construct a compelling argument using The Pyramid Principle: state a problem then explain how your product or service solves it. (See Barbara Minto’s […]

  3. Bad Language / How to make money writing for the web - May 13, 2008

    […] a writer’s bookshelf. I recommend The Pyramid Principle, The Economist Style Guide, Writing to Deadline (also see my 10-minute summary of the book), […]

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    […] I used to like using More, a Mac outlining tool, to compose essays in college. Used properly, they help construct compelling arguments, in the style of Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle. […]

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    […] Do you use the Pyramid Principle? The journalist’s inverted pyramid? Is it a colloquial conversation? Witty banter? Can you ask […]

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