The Minto Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto

The Minto pyramid principle, also known as the Minto pyramid, is a communication framework that can help you clearly communicate complex ideas.

As you progress up the career ladder, the ability to communicate complex information clearly, without losing your audience’s attention becomes increasingly important. This is what the Minto pyramid can help you do.

The framework was developed by Barbara Minto, a Harvard MBA graduate who worked at consulting firm McKinsey from 1963 to 1973.

The Minto Pyramid Principle

The Minto Pyramid Principle

The key components of the Minto pyramid principle are:

  1. Start with the answer by making your recommendations or conclusion immediately.
  2. Highlight key supporting arguments that contribute to your answer and summarize your data. 
  3. Provide data to back up each of your supporting arguments.

The Minto Pyramid Principle Example

Let’s take a look at an example. Suppose you work for a small online food magazine and want to answer the question, “How do we double profit?”

You might choose to answer this question as follows:

Well, our current growth is anemic, and we’ve identified the most attractive food-related market, and we’re uniquely positioned to enter that market, so to double profit, we should enter the health food market.

Now, there is nothing wrong with answering this question in this way, but if you were to answer the question using the Minto principle, you’d begin with the answer:

To double profit, we should enter the health food market because our current growth is anemic; it’s the most attractive food-related market, and we are uniquely positioned to enter it.

By answering using the Minto pyramid principle, you begin with the answer and then follow it up with your reasoning for your answer.

This makes it easier for the listener because having the answer upfront makes it much easier to follow your reasoning. It may sound obvious to start with the answer, but how many presentations have you sat through wondering, “what’s the point of all this?”

Let’s map this example into a hierarchy, adding one more level containing the data to back up your insights.

Minto Pyramid Principle Example

As you can see, the hierarchy is effectively a pyramid.

Before we look at how you can use the Minto pyramid principle to give a presentation, you should know a few things.

1. Encapsulation

Each box should capture or summarize the main point of all the boxes below it. So, for example, the box containing “Health is the most attractive food market” summarizes all the information in the boxes below it.

Minto Pyramid Principle Encapsulation

2. Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive (MECE)

At every horizontal level of your Minto pyramid, you should apply a concept known as MECE. MECE, usually pronounced “mee-see,” is an acronym for Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive, and comprises two parts:

  • Mutually Exclusive: Each box at a given level of your pyramid should be completely separate and not overlapping in any way.
  • Collectively Exhaustive: The set of all boxes at a given level should exhaust all options. Another way to say this is that all the boxes at a given level should make the whole, and adding more boxes should not be possible.

Minto Pyramid Principle MECE

Using The Minto Pyramid Principle to Communicate

The Minto pyramid can structure or organize any communication, including email and documents, but is particularly suited for presentations.

Let’s look at how we can present our previous example.

Minto Pyramid Principle Presentation

Hear each numbered box represents a slide of your presentation and the order in which you would show it, effectively your presentation outline. 

You can see that you’re effectively working down each branch of the pyramid in turn.

One of the reasons the Minto pyramid principle is so useful is because of its flexibility. Suppose you’re due to present a presentation to your board of directors, but others giving presentations before you overrun, and you are left with just ten minutes to give a presentation you’d initially planned to use a full hour for.

With the Minto pyramid, this isn’t an issue, as you can simply adapt your presentation on the fly and present it like this:

Minto Pyramid Principle Presentation Rushed

Alternatively, suppose during your one-hour presentation, an executive disagreed with some of your reasoning. In that case, you could spend extra time discussing that pyramid branch and skim through the rest.

Minto Pyramid Principle Presentation Drill Down

The real advantage of the Minto pyramid principle when giving a presentation is that even though you’re chopping and changing the slides you’re showing to fit the available time, the actual message you’re delivering doesn’t change at all, nor do you miss any critical parts of your argument. Hence, the completeness of your message remains intact.

Bottom-up: Synthesizing and Sense Making

This article primarily looks at the Minto pyramid principle as a top-down method of logically constructing and communicating an argument.

But it can be used in another way, too, from the bottom up to synthesize and make sense of data.

To do this, you organize your data into groups according to MECE. Then you extract insights from that data, and finally, you combine everything into a central thesis, insight, or takeaway.

The Minto Pyramid Principle Bottom Up Process

One situation in which this bottom-up approach comes into its own is in a job interview where an interviewer asks you to analyze some data and then present your findings. You can use the bottom-up approach to construct your arguments logically, followed by the top-down approach to present your conclusions logically yet flexibly.

Advantages & Disadvantages

There are several advantages and disadvantages associated with the Minto pyramid principle.

Advantages

  • It gets straight to the point. If you wait until the end to give your recommendation, your audience will have to think back about the reasons you already gave them.
  • It’s flexible. If time doesn’t permit you to go through your complete reasoning, you can still get all of your main arguments across even if you spend significant time covering the area most interesting to your audience.
  • You can use it as a diagnostic tool for your thinking to ensure your arguments are logical, complete, and don’t overlap.
  • It’s logical and easy to follow.

Disadvantages

  • It takes discipline and often a lot of trial and error to create a Minto pyramid on top of complex data sets.
  • If you don’t have good analysis or data at the lowest level of the pyramid, it can lead to the wrong, albeit logically constructed, conclusion.

Key Takeaways

In summary, you can use the Minto pyramid principle in two ways to help you clarify your thinking and deliver logical yet flexible communications.

  • Top-down: whereby you get straight to the point and then explain your reasoning, enabling your audience to follow along easily.
  • Bottom-up: whereby you use it to help you synthesize and organize data so that you can extract important insights from it.

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