Effective problem-solving requires you to be deeply logical, as much in your thinking as in your communication. The good news is that a few basic rules can help you at both stages. To guide our conversation, I have embedded a presentation that we use in our professional abilities workshops at UDEM and below is a summary.
According to Barbara Minto, an ex McKinsey consultant, the introduction to any problem or communication has three basic elements: a situation, a complication and a key question (or proposal). A fundamental part of effective thinking and communicating is recognizing which information belongs where in that introductory flow.
Use pyramids to organize your ideas
Elements in your thinking and communication are interrelated. Minto suggests that you organize them in a pyramid, with your main idea at the top and your supporting ideas logically grouped below.
Use your communication to improve your thinking
As your prepare to deliver your message, you need to organize its elements, choosing which ones to include and the order in which to include them. This is an important part of the problem-solving process that can help you with your thinking.
Imagine that you plan on using a presentation to deliver your conclusions. As your prepare it, refrain from just putting a title in the tagline of each slide. Instead, summarize the main take-away from the slide, including its “so what” whenever appropriate. (This is the so-called the assertion-evidence structure.) This will help in several ways.
First, your audience will be able to understand the slide without you. Of course, they will have additional benefits if you are there but a specific meeting is not indispensable (so they can see it beforehand, keep it as a reference for long after the meeting and still understand it, etc.).
Second, your audience will be able to get the “short version”. Each tagline summarizes the slide so if, for some reason, you can’t go through all the details, just reviewing the taglines will be sufficient. In a way, the sum of your taglines is the elevator pitch that you must have at the ready.
Third, you’ll have a better overall story. You have one idea per slide, summarized in its tagline. As you review these slides, concentrating only on the taglines, your story should flow. If it doesn’t, maybe it is only because some elements are out of order. But, perhaps, it is because you forgot to include some important analysis or you added irrelevant information. At any rate, explicitly writing the conclusion of the slide—as much its summary as its “so what”—will help you sharpen your thinking. That’s why it’s a good idea to start any problem-solving project by writing a storyboard of the document you’ll give at the end. That storyboard becomes the taglines of your slides (or the section name of your written report) and you’re working on it from the very beginning of your problem-solving process.
Minto’s Pyramid Principle is an excellent read. I especially like the first two sections.
On the assertion-evidence structure, see:
Alley, M., et al. (2006). “How the design of headlines in presentation slides affects audience retention.” Technical communication 53(2): 225-234.
Alley, M. (2013). The craft of scientific presentations, Springer.