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The Importance of Top-Down Communication

by Alice Greswold, second-year fast track consultant

At i3Works, we value the importance of time. As Covid-19 has shifted our organisation to favour remote working, our calendars can get inundated with back-to-back meetings, making it increasingly hard to fit actioned work in.

I was introduced to top-down communication by our head of Change and Transformation James Marwood during the FTC/PCA Charity Project 2021 as a way to streamline monthly reports that were digressing away from the relevant points and massively overrunning. After that piece of advice, our reports were to the point, timely and succinct. Furthermore, I’ve also found it an important written and verbal communication tool in all my client placements to date.

Primarily derived from Barbara Minto’s influential book ‘The Pyramid Principle’, top-down communication has become an increasingly popular method of communicating effectively in big firms, and with more senior colleagues who are always at full capacity. The main takeaway is simple (although exact definitions do tend to vary):

  • Group and summarise your supporting arguments; the Pyramid Principle teaches that “ideas at any level in the pyramid must always be summaries of the ideas grouped below them.”[1] Your recommendation(s) should be corroborated with underlying arguments and detail as all conclusions need to be evidenced; filling out the bottom levels of the pyramid.
  • Logically order your supporting ideas as you want to ensure that the ideas you bring together under each group actually belong together, are at the same level of importance, and follow some rational structure. Aspects such as time order if there is a sequence of events that form a cause-effect relationship, structural order by breaking a singular thought into its parts (see the description of the MECE principle below), and the order of importance with the most important to the least important are ways to logically structure your supporting ideas. This ordering will further strengthen the clarity of your answer.

Top-down communication takes time and effort to do because it is a rather unnatural way for humans to think. Humans are predisposed to put forward all the hard work and messy detail first as that’s often the way we came to our ultimate solution and reasoning. Forcing yourself to think and explain ‘top-down’ means you have no choice but to have crystal-clear thinking alongside the relevant processes and documentation. The resulting directness of the Pyramid Principle means the persuasiveness of your argument is increased; not only do you sound assertive and confident, but it doesn’t allow you to sit on the fence with your decisions.

There are other ways of structuring your thinking that also fit into Minto’s Pyramid Principles. The ‘MECE’ principle stands for ‘Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive’ and is a principle that can be used to break down a large entity into its smaller parts. The ‘mutually exclusive’ element denotes that each point of your supporting evidence/ideas should be independent of one another with no overlap, whilst the ‘collectively exhaustive’ entails that the several parts of your argument together should form the totality of your overall point. Applying the MECE principle to your daily work will enable to structure your reports, presentations and oral arguments more easily and avoid logical error when presenting your findings.[2]

The ‘rule of three’ is also an effective persuasion tool when talking to clients as it ensures that your argument is memorable, prioritised and structured. People are psychologically configured to expect things in groups of three (think three wise men, three little pigs) and so it’s a pattern in discussion that we are immediately receptive to. Furthermore, how many times have you been in a meeting and come away without knowing or really understanding what was discussed – the ‘rule of three’ can help resolve such issues since ‘research on human psychology has found that our working memory is best capable of remembering at most 3 or 4 chunks of information’.[3]

These structured ways of thinking can help you in a wider and more general setting at work, especially in the Defence Sector where most of i3Works’ clients lay and where Agile, Scrum and SAFe methodologies are favoured. From ensuring that all the necessary and important information fits into a 15-minute stand-up to editing your PowerPoint slides to ensure the title shows the main take away for each slide, the Pyramid Principle will save you time and impress your audience.

So next time you are preparing an elevator pitch, turn to Barbara Minto’s Pyramid and all that it encapsulates.

[1] The Pyramid Principle | by Ameet Ranadive | Lessons from McKinsey | Medium

[2] TALK LIKE A CONSULTANT – Top down communication explained (management consulting skills) – YouTube

[3] The Rule of 3. | by Ameet Ranadive | Lessons from McKinsey | Medium

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