How to set out a persuasive argument

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Consultants at the international strategy firm McKinsey are famous for their ability to take huge amounts of information and come up with clear and focused strategies for their clients.

That’s not something that we see all the time – how many meetings have we sat through that seem to have no point, presentations that meander all over the place and discussion or recommendation papers that are impossible to understand.

Is there a way to cut through all the noise and present information in a way that helps listeners understand their options and make decisions quickly?

Yes there is – and it’s called the Pyramid Principle.

Barbara Minto, the author of The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking, came up with the principles in her book while working at McKinsey – and then implemented them in training programmes at the firm.

Her insight was to see that the order in which we present ideas is critical.

When we’re solving a problem, we need to start from the beginning and work through to the solution at the end.

When presenting a recommendation, however, we start with the solution and then expand on why we believe that is the right thing to do.

Why do it this way? Well, because people are busy and dying to get to the point.

If we can explain something more clearly with less information they can make decisions more quickly.

The Pyramid approach has three parts to it:

  1. Tell the audience a story leading to a key question – which we answer up front.
  2. We then set out the key reasons why we believe the answer is the right one.
  3. We put forward facts and evidence to support our beliefs.

In most cases requiring a solution, we start with a situation where there is a complication – something isn’t working the way it should.

Our starting point is to ask a question – how can we make things better?

The story we tell describes the situation and complication, poses the question and then presents the answer – up front.

The audience knows in the first few moments of engaging with us or our material what they are going to get from us.

So then we set out the key themes – essentially answering why we believe our answer is the right one.

Three themes is a common approach – but it could be more if all of them are mutually exclusive and completely exhaustive – the so called MECE approach. More than seven, however, will usually confuse things.

Then, for each theme, we set out more facts and evidence to support our position.

By following the pyramid principle, we are going to connect far more quickly with the people we are trying to persuade and get across the decision we want them to make and the reasons and evidence that supports why they should make that decision.

And that is much more persuasive than a rambling discussion that sends everyone to sleep.

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