The Pyramid Principle is an indispensable resource of wisdom for communicating more clearly, whether in an interview or on the job itself. Underpinning the principle is this: start with your main overarching point, then explain the three reasons why in a top-down fashion.
Communication is at the heart of many stages of the application process, from structuring your CV, writing your cover letter, to preparing interview responses. The Pyramid Principle is one of the best books on improving your communication skills written by the first female MBA professional hire at McKinsey and it is highly rated by industry professionals.
Expanding your lexicon and changing the intricacies of your writing style is challenging but changing the way you structure your writing is quicker and arguably more effective in a business context. If there is one message to get from this post, it is to buy the Pyramid Principle and appreciate the competitive advantage it can give you in application season from cover letters, interview responses to case studies – not to mention the many other avenues of work it can support while at university. I list the contents page at the bottom of this post and although there is no audiobook available yet, following a 5 page per day habit rule should get you through the book in just over a month.
Begin with your answer, then the supporting reasons
At the heart of the Pyramid Principle is this framework of starting with your main point and then building your argument in a top-down fashion. This structure may seem counterintuitive for most of us used to building up our arguments before offering a conclusion, but business executives or HR want you to get to the point quickly. The top-down structure is more persuasive since it presents you as more confident and assertive when making your point.
Summarise and group your reasons
Ideas beneath any level of the pyramid should form under a single thought. Imagining a tree diagram, it makes sense that subsections of different branches shouldn’t intertwine with each other. For a cover letter, this might mean explaining why you are interested in investment banking and not tangling reasons why you want to go to that specific firm. That is not to say you can’t deviate from this structure without sacrificing clarity, e.g. where exposure to exciting company growth stories (why investment banking) links to how a tech-focused boutique interacts with more innovative companies (why firm).
Logically order the ideas supporting your arguments
Once you have made your point first, and properly grouped your reasons below, logically ordering that group of reasons is another key to crafting a clear structure. Such orderings might take the form of time order, structural order or order of importance. You can see the parallels with this point and forming the CV, where a chronological structure is most appropriate considering you should be disclosing the dates of each activity. The concise narrative of what led you to finance can follow this chronological structure when delivering your elevator pitch after being asked to ‘introduce yourself’.
As a bonus tip and something briefly discussed in the book is that less is more: don’t use sophisticated language to look smart, focus on getting the core point across. Have a list of forbidden words for cover letters (you’ll see how I still need to work on this in my posts!):
- Also (fewer words the better – ‘also’ is usually unnecessary)
- Not only but also (even worse than ‘also’ because of unnecessary words)
- Had to (just say what you did)
- Static words – using gerunds makes writing sound more dynamic (e.g. going, doing, instead of went, did).
Keeping language extremely concise through avoiding these words becomes even more critical for law applications, even though you should be writing bang on the word limit they give you. If you’re an Economics student and want to try a field where you won’t just be in a sea of other Economics undergraduates, then law is a great role to consider.
How this book applies to application season
I was in the process of writing most firm cover letters when I read this book, and to my surprise, I began appreciating how relevant it was to application season. Although, it is important to keep flexible within this framework e.g. you can still add a narrative element to your reasoning within the top-down structure.
Here is a “why investment banking” paragraph before applying the top-down structure:
I explored my interest in Strategic Advisory and M&A through a spring week at Lazard, where I most enjoyed applying my analytical mindset when investigating five potential buyers concerning the mock sale of a housebuilding firm. I further developed this interest when seeing the meaningful impact that M&A can have on an industry when analysing a Canadian healthcare company that had grown through consolidating a fragmented market by a string of acquisitions.
Here is a “why investment banking” paragraph after applying a more top-down structure:
Investment Banking appeals to me based on the analytical mindset required by analysts and the meaningful impact that M&A can have on an industry, which can lead to exciting work. I gained an insight into the problem-solving mindset required by analysts during a spring week at Lazard, where I most enjoyed analysing five potential buyers concerning a mock company sale. Secondly, it was through a remote internship at Singleton Valuations that I could appreciate the impact of M&A when analysing a Canadian healthcare company that had grown by consolidating a fragmented market through a string of acquisitions.
Beyond ensuring your cover letter structure follows this top-down framework, the top-down approach can be helpful when planning what to include in your cover letter. By starting with your main points and branching out the reasons in a brainstorming style, you’ll grasp a much clearer trail of thinking.
Market sizing questions
As I talk about in this post, starting with a one-line equation is a great way to simplify market sizing problems and keep the interviewer on track with what you’re saying, which strongly links to the top-down approach of communication. Keeping up with the specifics of what you have said combined with getting a feel for your personality is a tough multitasking act for interviewers, so the more you can simplify this for them, the more they’ll like you.
Commercial awareness (trends & deal)
When discussing a commercial awareness trend, there is a risk of not being prepared enough (see this post for help) or of going into too much detail. To avoid overwhelming the interviewer, you can give the headline trend you want to discuss, and then go into the drivers of this trend, decorated with a couple of statistics or case-specific names to show you have done your research.
Similarly, when talking about a deal using the deal cookie-cutter method discussed in the post linked above, a logical flow to your response is ensured by starting with the summary details of the deal and then delving into the three key rationales for the deal. You can then demonstrate your ability to think critically by explaining why the deal interests you and linking to a commercial awareness trend.
Reading the whole of the Pyramid Principle book will pay massive dividends when preparing to undertake a case study. When under pressure to understand, think and then present information to an interviewer, clear communication becomes a top priority. There are many other hacks beyond top-down communication from the book that should be harnessed in this situation such as diagrammatic thinking or using indented display to highlight structure to someone.
Caveat – still read the book
There are so many more details included in the book so I highly recommend making the £30 purchase and reading it, not just once, but on a regular basis throughout your career, which is a goal I’m hoping to stick to. Below you’ll find a breakdown of the contents page to show how much is covered.
The logic in writing part of the book
 Why a pyramid structure
 The substructures within the pyramid
 How to build a pyramid structure
 Fine points of introductions (creating a story in the introduction including the situation, complication and key line)
 Deduction and induction: the difference
 How to highlight the structure (headings, underlined points, decimal numbering, indented display)
The logic in thinking part of the book
 Questioning the order of a grouping (time order, structural order, ranking order)
 Questioning the problem-solving process
 Questioning the summary statement
 Putting it into readable words (creating an image and copying the image into words)