The Pyramid Principle in Consulting

By | June 21, 2012

Consultants must structure their thinking. This is the only way to present your ideas clearly to clients.  One excellent tool is the pyramid principle by an ex-McKinsey consultant by the name of Barbara Minto.   She authored a book called The Minto Pyramid Principle here (affiliate link) which essentially defined the way consultants structure most of their presentations.  Most consultants will know what the pyramid principle is, even if they don’t know the author.

Pyramid Logic Structure - Consulting blogPyramid Principle:  Just like the name implies, the idea is that the presentation logic looks like a pyramid.  The main recommendation is on top.  It is built on mid-level recommendations, each of which are supported by smaller facts, data, analysis, benchmarks etc . . .

In the graphic below you can see that the top of the pyramid (executive summary) has 3 recommendations.  Each of those recommendations have supporting pages.

  • Page 1 = executive summary
  • Page 2-4 = recommendation #1 and supporting facts
  • Page 5-7 = recommendation #2 and supporting facts

Pyramid principle - Structuring Presentations - Consulting blog

This type of presentation starts with the conclusion first.  It is a tops-down type of thinking that is very structured and how executives think.  Big idea followed by smaller ideas. This format helps you “cut to the chase” quickly, which is good for many reasons:

  • Executives have a short attention span, so it is good to say what you want to say before they start asking questions
  • This logic is very easy to follow.  “I recommend A,B,C.  Recommendation A is supported by facts 1,2,3”
  • By giving them the recommendation and logic up front, it allows the audience to focus on the areas they have the most interest
  • It forces the consultant to really hone the storyline to the most essential parts (no long-winded prose and rambling slides)

Yes, I know that most high-school term papers used a more bottom-up type of reasoning where the punchline was at the end of the 50 page paper. Trust me, that is not how you want to present in the boardroom. You do not want to start with lots of boring data points and save the good stuff to the end.

Caveat: Two types of presentations where you won’t use the pyramid principle:

  • An interim presentation of facts: In this case, the consultant is working with the client counterpart and walking them through information and some of the insights. Nothing too heavy. Not a recommendation.  Just information sharing.
  • A leave-behind deck:  Here the consultant has a presentation that is meant to truly stand-on-its-own, so the font is smaller, and it is written in more long-form prose. It is more of a guide or playbook, than a hard-hitting million dollar recommendation

Should I buy the book?  It’s up to you.  It is $135 and bit of a boring read.  If inclined, you can buy it directly from the author here.   As a consulting trick, just go to amazon.com and read the 45 reviews posted.  That will get you 80% of the way there.

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Source: http://commons.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gizeh_Mykerinos_BW_1.jpg

2 thoughts on “The Pyramid Principle in Consulting

  1. thesmartconsultant

    Haha..The typical consultant’s guide….I still recollect how structured thinking, structured problem solving, mind/brain mapping and the pyramid principle was the key to a consultant readiness program i attended. In reality, we seldom get the opportunity to follow the deck advices provided. Copy an earlier deck format, replace content, modify, present 🙂

    But looking back, I would agree that the program did its job of attempting to change the way we structure out thoughts…Good article…I invite you to visit, comment and follow my blog on consulting (www.thesmartconsultant.com). Thanks again for the article.

    1. consultantsmind Post author

      Agreed. Some times we are under pressure (from partners, clients, shortage of time, or just laziness) to simply look for previous examples so we can conveniently (ctrl H) find and replace names and calculations. Not good, but a bit of sad reality.

      Certainly, some of that has to do with the type of project (Corporate strategy, BU strategy, process improvement, cost reduction, post-merger integration, valuations, business modeling, etc. . .), the timeline, and the risk-profile of the client. Lower tolerance for risk = best practices done somewhere before. Higher tolerance for risk = more innovation, free thinking.

      Still a big fan of putting the executive summary (top of the pyramid) first in the PPT. Not everyone will agree with this, but has served me well so far.

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