The Pyramid Principle
The Pyramid principle boils down communication into a simple, top-down structure which forces you to structure your thinking, and provides senior folk with a logical flow - and makes sure the most important point stands out.
The more senior the person, the less likely they have time or attention to spare. If you send them an email, it may linger in their inbox for hours or days. If you give a presentation, they may be messaging on their phone. If they do pay attention, they are almost certainly most interested in the way your message relates to their interests. What do you want them to do? Why should they do it?
So, the Pyramid Principle requires you to start with the action you want them to take. I try to make that the subject of my emails - so, instead of “Update on the XYZ situation”, I aim for “Please approve extra budget for XYZ so we can unlock benefit ABC”.
This sounds easy - but it means you have to do the work to clearly state the recommendation, and that can be difficult.
The recommendation, solution, request, whatever, is the top of the pyramid.
You support that with 3 or so mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive items that make up the recommendation/solution. They typically answer questions like “why”, or “how”. You can keep these brief - a paragraph or two. This is the middle of the pyramid.
The base of the pyramid is the further information supporting the “why”, “what alternatives exist” or “how” questions.
If you’re writing this in a word processor or similar, you can use the Outliner tool to help structure your thoughts - I’ve got into the habit of using this.
As an example, I might do something like this:
Please approve extra budget for XYZ so we can unlock benefit ABC
Benefit ABC will bring in additional revenue.
Customers will pay more for ABC
ABC will attract new customers
The team have a credible plan to deliver XYZ
We already have an API for some of the features
Our suppliers can provide additional support
We’ve got a high-confidence estimate
It fits in the roadmap
The product team consider this capability strategically important
It’s on the roadmap for next year, but we can pull it forward with extra budget
By using the various heading styles to outline the argument, I can see whether I’m repeating myself, whether I’m contradicting myself, and where I need to clarify the argument. Doing this before writing the actual content helps me cut down the actual time to write the recommendation.
I got into this habit many years ago - and I’ve found it helps in conversation, as well as in written communication.
Situation - Complication - Question - Answer
The final recommendation from the Pyramid Principle is to start the top of the pyramid with SCQA (situation - complication - question - answer).
A brief description of the situation shows you understand the context in which you’re operating, you understand the audience and the world they live in.
Remember how I started this post with:
You’re an expert in your field - a software engineer, perhaps - and you have lots of insights to share.
But your wouldn’t have a recommendation if everything is hunkey dorey! So, you describe the challenge you face.
At the start of my post, I wrote:
But you find it difficult to get senior management to act on your ideas.
To address that challenge, you try to boil it down to a single question that will (help to) remove the complication.
What can you do to improve?
Once you’ve phrased the question, you can provide an answer.
You can learn to apply the Pyramid Principle to your communication style.