The main idea of your document

Hands on writing assignments are a very important part of my business writing workshops, which are based on a top down document structure – the Pyramid Principle.

The assignments start with a simple question – What is the main idea of your document? What is the governing thought? It is important to be able to express the main idea in one or two crisp sentences. Think about it this way – if you had only 30 seconds to communicate the main idea, how would you say it? This is an extremely powerful technique to get to the heart of the matter, to crystallize the real purpose of your document.

For new practitioners, it is surprisingly difficult to articulate the governing thought in a couple of sentences. This is because they have not clarified their thinking sufficiently to be able to logically state the conclusion and the high level supporting ideas for that conclusion. Let me illustrate with a simple example. The example is from an industry I am most familiar with, but it is at a sufficiently high level that it should be easy to follow for everyone.

Adam is a senior manager in an IT services company and he believes that the company must invest in Business Analysis (BA) services. Business Analysts are the intermediaries between business and technology teams. They have a good understanding of the customer’s business as well as a good grasp of technology, and are therefore able to facilitate the development of the right software through a two way communication that both parties can understand. They document requirements, help create test plans, and perform many other similar tasks.

Adam believes that the best way to start is to create a Business Analysis Centre of Excellence (BA COE) and seed it with some experienced Business Analysts. Since this will require an initial investment, he needs to seek approval of the board. As Adam starts thinking about how to structure his memo to the board, as a first step he attempts to articulate the governing thought. How would he say it in 30 seconds? Adam is an old hand at using the Pyramid Principle, and he comes up with the following sentences.

We recommend the setting up of a Business Analysis COE immediately, with an initial focus on the retail banking vertical. The COE will help us increase revenues, improve the quality of current deliverables, and provide an alternate career path to our employees.

There are a few things about these two sentences worth pointing out.

  • The main idea of the document is the conclusion, the recommendation, the result
  • The recommendation raises a question in the mind of the reader, which must be answered at a high level immediately thereafter. In this case the question is “why”, and it is answered by providing three ideas in support of the recommendation: higher revenues, better quality, more career options.
  • The supporting ideas (higher revenues, better quality, more career options) will raise more questions in the mind of the reader (how?), and the purpose of our document will be to answer those questions.
  • Only the writer knows the question likely to be raised in the mind of the reader. In this case if the primary concern of the reader is likely to be “how” rather than “why”, the second statement will change completely. The supporting ideas will then lay out the implementation plan, and steps for setting up the BA COE.

This simple step of formally writing down the main idea of your document will improve your writing significantly. It will help crystallize the primary logic for your recommendation, and help you determine if you are answering the resultant questions raised in the minds of your audience.

This takes some practice since it is a lot harder than it looks.

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