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The Pyramid Principle

These are only notes I scribbled down while reading the book. They need to be consolidated into a real article later.

The basic idea is to separate the thinking process from the writing process. First think, then write.

The document should be presented in proper form, so that the reader can easily understand it: pyramidal structure, flow of major ideas, supported by minor ideas.

Simpler sentences are good, and usually the focus when it comes to “good writing”, but it's only style, and hard to change. A more pervasive problem that can be fixed more easily (but not without effort) is the structure.

The ordering of ideas must not conflict with the capabilities of the reader's mind to process them. These capabilities are the same for everyone, Minto posits.

The clearest sequence is to present summarizing ideas before individual ideas that are fleshing out the summarizing ideas.

Information should be presented top-down, but the thinking process before writing the document should be bottom-up.

The document supports one major thought. That thought sits at the very top.


  1. Ideas must be summaries of ideas grouped below
  2. Ideas grouped together must be of “same kind”
  3. Ideas grouped together must be logically ordered

Definition: An idea is a statement that raises a question in the reader's mind.

Refrain from raising questions in the reader's mind before you are ready to answer them. Also refrain from answering questions you haven't already raised.

Horizontally, ideas can be grouped inductively or deductively.

The document's introduction should be of the form “situation, complication, question, answer”.

Don't use headings like “Findings” or “Conclusions”, they have no scanning value.

The introduction contains things the reader already knows or agrees with.

The complication is not necessarily a problem, but an alteration to a stable situtation and the impetus for writing the document.

The key line is the answer to a new question (the main question at the top) and indicates a plan for the document, expressed in ideas.

Think about a smooth transition between groupings.

Clear writing results from a clear exposition of the exact relationsships between a group of ideas on the same subject.

Ideas (with sub-groupings of ideas) should appear horizontally in logical order, either found deductively or inductively.

Deductive points derive from each other, inductive points don't.

Deductive: ponderous way to write, boring, syllogism, avoid on key line level

Inductive: action before argument, except

  1. reader will disagree with conclusion, must be prepared
  2. reader cannot understand without reasoning

Deductive reasoning is good in lower levels of the pyramid, there is little intervening information.

Inductive reasoning is more difficult and creative. You need the skills to define ideas in the grouping and identify misfits among them. The higher-level idea should be a plural noun (ensures that ideas are “of the same kind”).

If only one piece of evidence is available, it must be treated deductively.

Parallel ideas in parallel form (to eat, to sleep or eating, sleeping).

Inductive groupings can be time order, structural order or ranking order.

In structure, parts must be

  1. mutually exclusive
  2. collectively exhaustive

This is the MECE principle.

Key issues: yes-or-no-answers asked.

Inductive grouping: ideas above must state what the relationship below implies.

“There are two problems” doesn't summarize the ideas below, it merely states their kind (problem, objective, challenge).

Action statements:

  • grouped in causal structure
  • clear wording what things/actions achieve what effect, MECE
  • specific effect, not “improve profits”, but “10% higher profits”, not necessarily numerical goal, but it must be possible to judge success/completion

Causal hierarchy:

  • left to right: effects, left before right, temporal
  • up to below: cause, create end product (effect), causal

Action ideas cannot be grouped by similarity, only by effect.

Conceptual thinking in images helps to write clearly, it is also efficient: synthesizes many facts into an abstraction, which leads to compression.

the-pyramid-principle.txt · Last modified: 2019-07-15 09:56 by Thomas Hühn