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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Waller

Communicate Like an Executive with a Top-Down Storyline

What I’m sharing is an incredibly simple approach, but also a powerful one. It’s how I was taught to speak as a consultant because it’s one of the most reliable ways to communicate information. It’s also the way great executives talk and think.

Note that I didn’t say “best way” to communicate. There are a lot of effective ways to impart knowledge to someone or debate a point. This is just a way that I’ve found to be the most effective in most situations.

At McKinsey, we called this top-down comms or the pyramid principle (coined by Barbara Minto).

I teach this and reinforce it to my coaching clients often. The primary tenet is that most messages should have one governing thought and one governing thought only. Then that governing thought can have several supporting thoughts, logically holding it up. And each supporting thought is underpinned by the facts and data.

Three levels, starting from the top.

1. Governing thought

This is our primary message. It’s the thing that actually, really, truly matters. If we have several of these, we need to think a level up. What is the core theme here? What is the question we’re really trying to answer?

For instance, we might be talking about a product launch and the difficulties of launching it on time. So what? Or we might be thinking that the product isn’t ready, there’s a holiday coming up, someone has been out sick. So what?

It sounds like what we really need to say is, “We need to delay the product launch.”

Feel the difference? Now we’re actually talking about something real. If we lead with holidays or sick developers, the conversation isn’t really focused on the core issue, just the connected dots.

Sometimes it’s hard for bottom-up thinkers like myself to get to this. I find that the best way to arrive at the core thought is either by writing it down or talking it through with someone else. In any case, this practically means taking a bit of time ahead of any big conversation to get clear on my core message.

2. Supporting thoughts

What are our supporting thoughts? If the governing thought is a tree trunk, these are the branches. If the governing thought is the “what,” then this is the “why.”

Think of it like a lawyer preparing her arguments. “Not guilty” may be the governing thought, but why?

Our supporting thoughts should be independent of each other, with no overlaps, and complete enough to make the argument. This is another principle of McKinsey called MECE, or mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive.

Also, we should be careful to not dive into all the facts and data just yet. It can be hard to connect a dozen data points back to the core argument. Aim for three supporting thoughts, but two or four are fine, too. This helps to structure the message and keep things less complex, easy to digest. Example:

We need to delay the product launch

  1. The product is only 50% ready now

  2. The product won’t be ready by launch

  3. There’s no clear path to getting on track

3. Facts and data

Now is the time for all the minutiae to come in. The beauty of taking this approach, though, is that not all of it will matter. We may find that things on our mind really don’t have a place in this structure. That probably means that we’ve been so focused on the detail that we’ve lost sight of the message.

Take the supporting thoughts one-by-one. What are the facts and data underpinning each supporting thought? If supporting thoughts are the branches, these are the leaves and flowers. If supporting thoughts are the “why,” then these are the “why” and “how” of each one.

Explain each of your points as much as you need to. No more, no less. Your facts and data should be relevant and grounded in real information. This doesn’t mean that each one is a statistic, opinions and observations matter, too.

Each one should have weight and really contribute to establishing the supporting thought, which in turn reinforces the governing thought. Example:

We need to delay the product launch.

1. The product is only 50% ready now

  • The design team is still working on the final screens

  • Development is done with the back end, but front end is just starting

  • We underestimated the architecture lift and two developers were out sick

2. The product won’t be ready by launch

  • We only have two more sprints, and there are at least fours sprints of work left

  • The Thanksgiving holiday is going to delay things slightly more

3. There’s no clear path to getting on track

  • No additional developers are available to jump in

  • Even if we had new developers, the content is too specific to ramp up on quickly

  • We could work weekends, but it’s not enough to make the deadline

  • We could launch without the final screens, but this is short of MVP

Why this matters

The top-down approach of a single message with supporting thoughts and facts is the go-to for most business conversations. It’s simply the clearest, most digestible, direct way of sharing a thought, in most cases.

When we’re making a point or conveying a message, complexity can get in the way. If we start with a bottom-up approach of laying out facts and data first, the audience is confused at best, bored and disinterested at worst.

On the other hand, if we start top-down but have two or three main points, it can be difficult to understand what actually matters. Always nest these points under one governing thought to make clear what actually matters.

Top-down communication was critical in my life at McKinsey. Executives are time-poor and can be quick to form an opinion.

But this way of communicating is for more than just executives.

Any time the weight of your message matters, any time that it’s a message that needs to be heard, try a top-down storyline. Reflect on where your story lines up and where it doesn’t. Good luck, and let me know how it goes.

Originally published in The Ascent


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