Structuring business documents in a top down pyramid of ideas is the easiest and most powerful way to improve clarity of the documents. This is the central theme of a workshop I conduct based on Barbara Minto’s pyramid principle. Over the years I have observed that most people are very uncomfortable with the top down writing style and have a great deal of difficulty practicing it. This happens because they do not distinguish between the problem solving process and the presentation process.
As corporate citizens and individuals we are often in a problem solving mode which is usually a bottom up process. A few examples are: finding a new revenue source, identifying and fixing a recent spate of quality problems, turning around an irate customer, improving employee morale, finding the best location to set up another facility and so on. In order to solve these problems we gather information, sift through the details, and generate insights that lead to solutions and recommendations. For instance, consider the decision making process of a software development firm to select a new location in India to expand their operations. The individuals working on this problem are likely to come up with a set of criteria for the selection, and then gather detailed information about possible locations. Two possible criteria might be the availability of skilled manpower and cost of living. Information about these criteria will then be gathered for the shortlisted locations for comparison.
The final recommendation will be based on the insights generated from all the information gathered during this process. The problem solving process is essentially a bottom up process. It moves from detail to summary, and then to solutions. We are trained from our early days to engage in this form of thinking, and we are very comfortable with this approach. The problem arises when we apply the same bottom up approach to communicating our findings through a presentation or a document.
The key insight from the pyramid principle is that we should always present the summary before we present the supporting ideas. If this order is preserved, every detail presented to a reader is in a context that has already been communicated through the summarizing idea. This distinction might appear small, but the effect is extremely powerful.