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Some prime "steak" but not much "sizzle"
on 23 May 2007
This book was first published in the US in 1987 and then in the UK in 1991. The review that follows is of an edition published in 2002. The title refers to the core concept within the framework Barbara Minto recommends in order to present material "so clearly that the ideas jump off the page and into the reader's mind." The same framework will also guide and inform preparation of presentations to groups. According to Minto, research clearly indicates that "the mind automatically sorts information into distinctive pyramidal groupings in order to comprehend it. Any grouping of ideas is easier to comprehend if it arrives presorted into its pyramid. This suggests that every written document should be deliberately structured to form a pyramid of ideas." In this volume, Minto explains how to structure the provision of material in ways and to the extent that accommodate the structure of how those who receive, absorb, and digest it.
Others have expressed their reactions to this book. Here are two of mine. First, if I understand Minto's thesis (and I may not), the three aforementioned "findings about the way the mind works" seem to refer far more to the subconscious than to the conscious mind. If so, I question how Minto's highly rational approach to writing clear business documents can accommodate the need to communicate effectively in non-verbal ways (e.g. body language and tone of voice). Minto's approach requires completing a rigorous, disciplined, and focused process (a geometric progression, really) that presupposes that the recipient of the given document will absorb and digest (not merely organize) the material in a comparable manner.
My second reaction is that Minto's content is generally quite solid (despite what I view as a few questionable premises) but that her writing style often lacks any "Snap! Crackle! And Pop!" The narrative comes across (at least to me) as resembling instructions in an operations manual for a writing machine. Consider this brief excerpt from Chapter 2:
"...you cannot hope to just sit down and start arranging your ideas in a pyramid. You have to discover them first. But the pyramid dictates a rigid set of substructures that can serve to speed the discovery process. These are:
o The vertical relationship between points and subpoints
o The horizontal relationship within a set of subpoints
o The narrative flow of the introduction"
I do not doubt that this approach worked for Minto when she generated and then organized the material for this book about that approach. The question remains, does Minto's presentation of such material engage the reader's heart as well as mind? It seems ironic that she acknowledges the importance of using various elements of "the story" (i.e. characters, situation, plot, conflict, resolution) but only in Chapter 4 when discussing "Fine Points of Introductions." Seldom throughout this book do Minto's ideas "jump off the page and into [her] reader's mind."
My guess (only a guess) is that this book will have the greatest appeal to -- and greatest value for -- those who already think as clearly and precisely as Minto obviously does. They and she would be well-advised to keep in mind, however, that most others do not, especially those who receive a document whose preparation has been guided and informed by The Pyramid Principle.