A Framework for Having Complex Conversations: The Communication Pyramid

Regular readers of The New Leader’s Newsletter will know that I love a good framework or process. Many people, particularly people managers, are scared of processes but I see them as a great tool to reduce the chances of failure. They’re also a great shortcut to solve a problem or improve how you do something if it’s quite new to you. 

In previous issues, we’ve talked about:

These can help you cut down the inevitable learning curve that a new manager has to go through, making it more likely that you’ll be an effective leader sooner than you think.

Today, I want to share a framework that I come back to over and over again. In fact, I don’t even look at it properly anymore because it’s so ingrained in my various methods of communication it’s become instinctual for me to use it.

It’s called the Communication Pyramid and it was introduced by someone called Barbara Minto when she was a consultant at McKinsey.

In summary, it’s a framework for making your communication more effective and likely to succeed in its goals. It was originally intended (and is probably most effective) when producing written communication such as essays, memos, proposals and written recommendations. However, I’ve often found it useful for all sorts of communication, including meeting preparation and 121 presentations with people who I manage.

If you have a complex message to deliver and you’re not sure where to start, I’d highly recommend giving the communication pyramid a shot to see if it can help you structure things in an effective way. 

Let’s dive in.

The communication pyramid

Here it is in full:

The Communication Pyramid

Let’s take a look at each layer, starting with the foundation.

The purpose and goal of the communication

The starting point for all communications should be to understand what the goal is. You can understand this by asking yourself questions, such as: 

  • What are you trying to achieve?
  • What do you want to be different when you have communicated? 
  • How will you know this has been achieved? 
  • What next steps do you want to get from this interaction? 
  • If there are several goals, are they compatible and are any more important than others? 

If you cannot answer these sorts of questions, do not be surprised if your communication is ineffective. Take some time to rethink things a little bit and get really, really clear on what you’re trying to communicate and ultimately, achieve. 

What type of person are you communicating with?

Communications must be appropriate to the person or group being communicated to and in the style they prefer. This person or group is your audience and, more than likely, your direct team who you work with day in and day out. Effective communication is meaningful and appealing from the audience’s viewpoint. 

Effective managers always seek out the best way to communicate, based on who you are communicating with. 

There are many factors that need to be considered when thinking about who you’re communicating with:

  • What are their media preferences: Do they prefer the spoken or written word? 
  • Is there any specific terminology that should be used or avoided? 
  • What style of communication do they like? 
  • Do they prefer the big picture or details? 
  • Do they respond best to facts or emotions? 
  • Do they like ideas that are action-orientated, or do they favour more conceptual information that makes them think?

The plus side of being a manager is that you can get to know these preferences for your team over time and adjust as you work more closely with them. 

What’s your key message?

The next stage of the communication pyramid is about developing the specific messages you want to communicate. What are the points you need to get across that will help you achieve your communication goal? This is a step worth being patient about starting. We are all tempted to jump into the action of writing documents or creating presentations or writing meeting agendas. My advice is to hesitate a little. Do not work out your messages before you know why you are communicating and to whom.

This is also a good point to simplify things and, where necessary, cut things down. If you try to communicate too much at once, your core message could get lost and this could lead to an ineffective message. 

Think about things such as:

  • What do you need to do in order to achieve the ‘why’? 
  • What key messages do you need to communicate?
  • Avoid fluff, keep this simple.

What’s the best format for communication?

The final part of planning your communication is to determine how you will communicate. Things to consider here include: 

  • What media will you use? 
  • Will you communicate formally or informally?
  • Do you need to present a slide deck?
  • Will you have people joining from multiple locations?
  • Do you need anything logistical such as food, drinks, etc?

Finally, words are not the only form of communication. When speaking, you must consider your body language, as well as your dress and appearance. There are also factors like pitch, tone, speed, volume, pauses and so on to get right. For the written word, characteristics like document format, layout, font, colour, tone, style, as well as the use of visual aids, all have a direct influence on the effectiveness of your communication.

So what?

Having thought about why, what, how and who, a good test of any communication materials you have developed or conversations you have planned is to ask yourself ‘so what?’ If you communicate what you plan to communicate in the way you plan to do it, what will it achieve? If you cannot answer the question ‘so what?’, then it is likely that the communication will be ineffective.

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