Using the Minto pyramid to start a white paper? Stop right now.

Jul 28, 2016

Not long ago, a new client asked if we were familiar with the Minto Pyramid Principle and could we use it to help with the white paper he was planning.

Yes, of course, we said. (We’re helpful like that.) But, we added politely, that’s not the right way to start a paper or article.

You see, the Minto method isn’t built to generate premium thought-leadership content.

“Blasphemy!” I hear you shout. No doubt Minto devotees the world over are mobilizing right now, preparing to march out to defend the honor of Barbara Minto, the former McKinseyite who taught generations of consultants her process “…for producing everyday business documents – to-the-point memos, clear reports, successful proposals, or dynamic presentations.”

Before I start barricading my front door, let’s look at where my client’s question came from. He’s a senior consultant; like many of his peers, he has used the Minto methodology (and what red-blooded consultant doesn’t love a good methodology?) as a tried-and-true way to organize his thinking “so that it jumps easily off the page to lodge in a reader’s mind.”

Yes, Minto is great for helping people straighten out their thinking by creating pyramids of ideas that follow logical rules and are held together by a single thought, as Minto’s site puts it. But it doesn’t address the fundamental questions that are essential to getting thought leadership right in the first place.

Said another way, Minto helps with the “how” of the presentation of an idea but it doesn’t readily address the underlying “why” of that idea, let alone the “who” or the “when.”

For any thought leadership initiative, here are the straightforward questions you must be able to answer before there are thoughts to organize:

What’s the story? That’s not as inane as it sounds; too often, the story has not been thought through. Or the story is actually a not-so-subtle plug for the company’s capabilities, meaning that it’s much more brochure than thought leadership. Or the authors aren’t seeing eye-to-eye on the approach to the story. If the story cannot be communicated in the proverbial 30-second elevator ride – if it cannot be summed up in a likely headline for your local tabloid newspaper –that’s a clear sign that it’s not yet fully “baked.”

How is it different from what the other guys are doing? If the story (or at least the story angle) isn’t materially different from and ideally stronger than what competitors have already put out there, then it may not properly support your firm’s marketing efforts. A possible rationale for doing something same-y: to get into the conversation because your firm isn’t there yet. But that’s actually thought followership. True thought leadership differentiates your company from the competition. It often does that by telling readers to zig when others tell them to zag.

Why now? What’s the business rationale for doing this right now? What will you miss if you don’t? How come the theme wasn’t tackled earlier – last year, or five years ago, say? Is the market changing as fast as that? Is your company being whipsawed by competitive pressures more than it has been? Answering these kinds of questions helps you rise above creating an “everyday business document” and positions you to initiate and lead timely, topical conversations.

Who’s your target reader? This is a universal question that any thought leader must be able to answer promptly and with certainty. In the case of thought leadership for business audiences, the answer is often: the C-suite. But which title within the C-suite? What will get his or her attention? Effective thought leadership is tightly focused on one target role or buyer persona. Audience is a singular noun, not plural. Something written broadly enough to appeal to all will resonate with none.

What do you want to happen? Is this article or white paper or blog intended only to start a conversation with prospective new clients? To provide new opportunities to engage with existing clients? To spur readers to action, or just to inform and educate? To generate leads as fast as possible? To simply increase brand awareness? If you answer “all of the above”, you’ve just taken the lazy way out. You’ve got to be clear about the intended consequences! If you don’t know what your objectives are, how will you know if you’ve met them?

Those are the core questions that must be answered from the get-go. (In an upcoming blog, we’ll look at a few others that help get story ideas launched smoothly.) Thinking in Minto terms presumes that these questions have already been answered. If that’s not so, then putting Minto first short-changes the thought leadership process and puts you at risk of developing “me too” material that, however well structured, is not exactly the most insightful or persuasive content.

So first things first. Spend time up-front getting the answers you need to craft a timely, targeted, differentiated argument that you can wrap in a clear and compelling narrative. Then, and only then, use the Minto method to help organize your thinking as you flesh out the argument.

Agree? Disagree? Bring it on! My barricade is now in place.