Mastering The Pyramid Principle To Structure Your Slide Deck

Pyramid Principle with BCG Slide Deck

Slide decks aren’t just about fancy charts and visualizations. Good slide decks follow a pre-defined structure that makes it easy for the reader to follow your argument and accept your conclusion.

But how do you structure a slide deck that is clear and compelling like this?

It’s easy, you just use the Pyramid Principle.

The Pyramid Principle started at McKinsey & Co

The Pyramid Principle was formalized at the strategy consulting firm McKinsey & Co. They realized that, despite years of Ivy League education, their business school recruits lacked corporate communication skills.

So they charged Barbara Minto with refining the way the firm communicated to their clients, and she spent over 20 years teaching the method to new recruits.

In 2009, Barbara Minto summarized her work in her book, The Pyramid Principle. And it quickly spread to other consulting firms and became the “best practice” of corporate communication.

What is the Pyramid Principle?

The Pyramid Principle advocates that your thinking should form a pyramid structure that cascades down from a single, top-level thought. Below that top-level thought sit your arguments, and below your arguments sit your supporting data.

The pyramid looks something like this:

The Pyramid Principle

Then three main implications to come out of the Pyramid Principle are:

  1. Start with the answer: Communicate your answer, conclusion or recommendation immediately, not at the end.
  2. Group and sequence your arguments: Group similar insights into the same argument and be thoughtful about how to sequence your arguments.
  3. Support your arguments with data: Ensure that you have data that supports every argument and prevents your reader from disputing them.

1. Start with the answer

The Pyramid Principle: Start With The Answer

Most people aren’t familiar with how to structure their thoughts when communicating to a corporate audience.

People tend to think in a “bottom-up” way, especially if they have a technical or research background. In those disciplines, you’re taught to build an initial fact base, describe your analyses, and then finish with your conclusion.

But that’s not the best way to communicate in a corporate environment.

You need to remember that you’re writing for busy executives. Executives are trained to think “big picture” and from the top down.

Generally speaking, those executives care more about the recommendation or answer, than about the data and analysis behind it. And even if they are curious about the analysis, they often don’t have the time to dive into the detail.

As Barbara Minto explains in her book:

As a rule of thumb, you are better off giving the answer, rather than the argument, as the answer is what the reader cares about.

But in the context of building PowerPoint slide decks, what do we mean by start with the answer?

Put simply, it means that the very first slide of your slide decks should be an Executive Summary that clearly articulates the implications or recommendations that result from your analysis.

Your Executive Summary should follow a Situation-Complication-Resolution structure. We won’t go into detail here, but you can check out our article on how to write killer Executive Summaries.

In that article, we break down an Executive Summary from a real-world BCG slide deck and spell-out exactly how you can write them just like a strategy consultant.

2. Summarize and sequence your arguments

The Pyramid Principle: Group Your Main Arguments

Of course, there are some executives who are interested in the rationale of your answer, especially if your answer is unexpected or counter-intuitive.

Those who do want to understand your rationale will start reading the body of your slide deck. And it’s important you lay out your argument in a clear and compelling way, so that they accept your conclusion.

For your reader to agree with your answer, two things need to be true:

  1. Your slide deck needs to have an argument that logically leads to your conclusion
  2. No part of your logical argument can be disputed by the reader

In this section, we discuss how to articulate your argument in the clearest manner. This is done by summarizing your arguments into coherent groupings, and then sequencing them in a logical way.

In the next section, we will discuss how make your argument indisputable with data and evidence.

Summarizing your arguments

Humans like to place order on complex situations. So, no matter what your slide deck looks like, your reader will start grouping and summarizing the content into arguments.

But if your slide deck is a mish-mash of disorganized thoughts, then the reader simply won’t be able to make sense of your argument. And if they cannot make sense of your argument, then they will most certainly doubt your conclusion.

Therefore, you need to abstract your data into sensible groupings, so that it’s easy for your reader to understand the argument you are making.

This is the process of combing through your data, identifying the “so what” or implication, and then summarizing data points that have the same implication. These groupings form the body of your slide deck.

Sequencing your arguments

Equally as importantly, once you have your supporting arguments defined, you need to sequence them in a way that illustrates the logic of your argument.

There are few ways to sequence your supporting arguments.

  1. By significance: You can sequence your arguments from most important to least important (e.g. from highest to lowest risk of occurring)
  2. Chronologically: If there is a time dimension to your arguments, you can sequence your arguments in time order  (e.g. step 1, step 2, step 3)
  3. Structurally: If your arguments are “parts of a whole”, you can sequence your arguments the same way your audience sequences them (e.g. your client might list their operating divisions in a particular order, so you should sequence in the same order)

3. Support your arguments with data

The Pyramid Principle: Provide Supporting Data

Now that you have a number of arguments that are grouped, sequenced, and support your answer, the next step is to ensure that those arguments cannot be disputed.

To ensure this, you need to include data to support all of your arguments. There can be no claim in your slide deck that doesn’t have a justification.

What would a Pyramid Principle slide deck look like?

Most people who build slide decks haven’t come across the Pyramid Principle before.

They put very little thought into how to structure their arguments or how to sequence them. Because of this, it’s very easy to dispute their conclusion and recommendation.

Therefore, they most commonly structure their slides decks like this:

  • Slide 1: Argument 1
  • Slide 2: Argument 2
  • Slide 3: Argument 3
  • Slide X: Conclusion

However, if we were to apply the Pyramid Principle to slide decks, then the slide deck structure would look something like this:

  • Slide 1: Executive Summary with key recommendations
  • Slide 2: Summary of argument 1
    • Slide 3: Supporting data point 1 for argument 1
    • Slide 4: Supporting data point 2 for argument 1
    • Slide 5: Supporting data point 3 for argument 1
  • Slide 6: Summary of argument 2
    • Slide 7: Supporting data point 1 for argument 2
    • Slide 8: Supporting data point 2 for argument 2
    • Slide 9: Supporting data point 3 for argument 2
  • Slide 10: Summary of argument 3
    • Slide 11 Supporting data point 1 for argument 3
    • Slide 12: Supporting data point 2 for argument 3
    • Slide 13: Supporting data point 3 for argument 3
  • Slide X: Conclusion / Recommendations / Next Steps

So next time you’re building a slide deck, try the Pyramid Principle approach. No doubt you’ll find that your slide deck is clearer and more compelling for your reader.

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  • Day 1: Structuring your slide deck using the "Pyramid Principle"
  • Day 2: The 3 principles for writing killer Executive Summaries
  • Day 3: The anatomy of exceptional slides
  • Day 4: How to select the best chart for your data every time
  • Day 5: The "Draft, Drain, Refine" process to write sharp slide text