Structured communication made easy with the Pyramid Principle

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Communicating is something we do almost automatically and unconsciously on a daily basis. Like breathing. We rarely stop and reflect if our way of communicating is actually effective and what we could do to improve it. Added to this, we rarely receive direct feedback about our communication style. 

Sometimes, we notice that we don’t get the results we expect – a suggestion that is ignored, a business idea that is not approved, or a deal with a new customer that is not closed. The problem is often related to communication, and we don’t realise it until it’s too late. 

This is not a lost cause, though. We can all get better at communicating when we know what to look out for. That’s why we’d like to introduce you to the concept of structured communication and show you a straightforward method called the Pyramid Principle that you could implement right away to communicate more efficiently. 

How structured communication helps your organisation 

When small or big things go wrong in organisations, it’s mostly due to a communication error. Often, that’s not immediately visible, but when you dig deeper, you’ll find that it’s usually true. You can imagine that all of these errors hurt the bottom line in some way. Even though it’s hard to measure, improved internal and external communication will clearly have a positive effect on your business.

Here are three more benefits of structured communication for your organisation:

Faster and better work 

When tasks and expectations are communicated clearly, your employees will not only be able to do their job better but also faster. Structured communication can easily avoid frustrating misunderstandings and the resulting delays due to needed clarification and rework. 

Better and quicker decision-making 

Leaders and executives need to make a lot of decisions in a short period of time. In order to do so, they require the right information. When all facts and options are communicated effectively, they can ultimately make better decisions. As a result, the organisation can be more agile, react quicker to opportunities, and avoid looming catastrophes. 

Increased employee satisfaction 

Constant miscommunication, even if they’re small, can quickly lead to frustration. This builds up over time in your employees and results in low motivation and dissatisfaction at the workplace. On the other hand, effective communication fosters healthy relationships and a positive work environment. 

The most common mistake in communication

How do we present an argument? In most cases, we would list a couple of points and end with a conclusion. However, presenting an idea like this is not the best possible, most straightforward way. Our counterpart needs to listen to our full presentation before he or she can understand the point that we’re making. That’s not very efficient, and we might even lose their attention on the way. 

Here’s a concrete example. Imagine that one of your employees is presenting an action plan to an executive: “We’ve considered option A, B, and C. And option A didn’t work for several reasons. Option B seemed to be the most feasible, but then we discovered a problem. So, in the end, we’d recommend option C.”

Something along those lines is very common in organisations. We tend to want to show off the work that we’ve done and to explain the process we’ve gone through. However, most executives and managers care about the big picture, not the details. If they are interested in the specifics, they will certainly ask for them. 

Here’s a better way of presenting an idea, conclusion, or argument. 

Communicating with the Pyramid Principle 

The Pyramid Principle

 

The alternative way of presenting information is called the Pyramid Principle and was developed by Barbara Minto in the 1970s at McKinsey. This method quickly became the standard for structured communication for consultants worldwide. 

How to use the Pyramid Principle 

Let’s start with applying the Pyramid Principle to our example. Now, your employee would reply: “We recommend option C. And here are the reasons why …” Did you notice the difference? It’s a clear, straightforward answer. Here’s exactly how the Pyramid Principle works:

The Pyramid Principle follows a top-down structure. Always start by stating your main idea, answer, or recommendation first. This way, you’re mirroring the way leaders think. They don’t like to get bogged down in the details. By providing the big picture first, you can immediately grab their attention. 

Only after you’ve presented the main idea, follow up with your supporting arguments. To make it even easier for your listeners, group these points in a logical way. This is the base of your pyramid. According to the Pyramid Principle, “Ideas at any level in the pyramid must always be summaries of the ideas grouped below them.” 

There’s even a recommendation for how many ideas you should arrange together. 3 – 5 items is the optimal number to ensure that you aren’t overwhelming your audience. When you are providing bite-sized morsels of information, they can be more easily digested and remembered. 

Why the Pyramid Principle is so effective 

Even if it seems counterintuitive at first to present information in this structure, it follows a logic that no one will be able to deny. Every piece of information in the pyramid reinforces the greater idea above it. Questions that arise from the main argument can be easily answered as all information is available in a structured manner. 

The great thing is that it can be applied in any situation, whether you’re presenting to a senior leader, writing an email to a colleague, or answering a question in a meeting. It works for verbal and written communication. 

Another positive side-effect is that this style of communication makes you look assertive and confident while you are presenting. Your counterpart will notice that you’ve evidently thought your argument through. Especially busy executives will appreciate the clarity and efficiency in delivery.  

Where to go from here 

Now, you’ve got a powerful tool at your fingertips that can help you transform the way you and your employees are presenting and communicating. It might take some time to get used to it, but when you follow this structure consciously for a while, you’ll fully internalise it. 

Imagine all of your employees presenting their ideas and arguments in a clear, structured manner. How much more efficient would their communication, and consequently, your whole organisation be? 

All you have to do is to run our [email protected] programme. This programme teaches a simple way of structuring, and focuses on two components, ‘Framing’ and ‘Justifying’. It evolved out of ‘The Case Maker™, a programme that we developed and fine-tuned since 2003. 

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Posted in Best practices, Presentation Training.

Julia Saxena

Julia Saxena is a senior writer at People Potential. Since working in HR of one of the world's largest banks, she has been fascinated by the human factor in the success of organisations. Julia loves to discuss topics which are on top of HR professionals minds with the aim to improve some workplaces along the way.