The pyramid principle

Pyramid Principle is the name of a famous book by Barbara Minto on the McKinsey method for effective communication. The book is 200+ pages long, but we’ll try to glean the key takeaway points for consulting candidates in a few lines.

THE AUDIENCE

Think about your audience, first. In your presentations as a consultant, you’ll be presenting your findings to busy C-level executives. In your interview you’ll be dealing with consulting Partners, who work everyday with CEOs and share their manners and approach. The implication is that often times the most challenging constraint you’ll face is time. What they expect from you is a short and clear main recommendation from your project. Then, if they are interested, they’ll ask for details. This is called “top-down” manner. Executives what to focus on the big strategic question they have without getting bogged down by details.

 ANSWERS, FIRST

The approach is simple:

1.      Start with the answer to the executive’s question first

2.      State your (preferably 3) MECE supporting arguments

3.      After stating each supporting argument, state the facts related to them

This sounds intuitive. However, especially for people just out of College or with a scientific or engineering background this represents the opposite of the approach they have always used in an academic or technical context. If you read an academic paper you find the conclusion at the end. The flow is very logical: you start by reciting all of the facts, recounting all of the analyses and reviewing all of the supporting ideas. Then you get to the punch line. Diametrically the opposite of the pyramid principle.

THE MAIN PROBLEMS

1. The what vs. the so-what

There is a basic requirement for any effective storytelling using the pyramid principle: having clear the main question you are expected to answer. This is a crucial problem. If you don’t have the question clear, your main point at the top of the pyramid will be irrelevant. Despite the logic being pretty straightforward, this proves to be a very challenging point for many candidates in the synthesis phase at the end of a case. They are so emotionally involved in all the problem solving and analyses that they lose sight of the key question being asked. This is an extremely bad signal: in consulting everything is about not boiling the ocean, or running an endless number of useless analyses. Doing so requires a strong focus on the main problem. Our hypothesis-driven structure should help you to have the CEO’s question in mind throughout the case.

2. Grouping facts

In the pyramid principle facts are grouped in supporting arguments, usually three. This helps CEOs or interviewers understand the relevance of facts for the point you are making. One of the most common mistakes is stating facts in an unstructured “laundry list” or “flow of consciousness” style. This has two key drawbacks: first, it prevents interviewers from properly understanding the relevance of facts for the points you are making; second, it leads interviewers and CEOs to disengage from the conversation and think about other more pressing issues. Bottom line: you failed to convey your message. 

a final point on brainstorming

As we stress several times, communication is absolutely crucial in consulting. The best analysis coupled with ineffective communication is a recipe for failure. There are times however when you are simply brainstorming for potential ideas with the interviewer and your process is likely not to be overly structured. So, what is the alternative? Taking more minutes of silence and then come up with a structured answer at the end? We strongly suggest you not to do so, for two reasons. First, you prevent the interviewer from understanding the way you think and, second, you can't do that in front of a real client. So, how to reconcile relatively unstructured brainstorming with the Pyramid Principle? Once you are done with the brainstorming summarize your key findings according to the Pyramid Principle. Not only will you showcase excellent synthesis and communication skills, you'll also signal your ability to connect bits of the problem with the grand scheme of things.

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