Inverted pyramid: how to write with impact

drawing of upside down pyramid

The ‘inverted pyramid’ is a tried and tested formula for giving your writing more impact.

With the inverted pyramid, you put the most important information – your key message – at the start of whatever it is you’re writing. You then present your lesser points in descending order of importance.

Journalists use the inverted pyramid all the time. Think about the last time you read a newspaper. How many stories did you finish?

How many stories did you read beyond the first couple of paragraphs? The standfirst? (That’s the introductory paragraph after the headline). Or, even, the headline?

The writers of your daily paper know you won’t read every word they produce. So they ‘frontload’ their stories, packing all the essential info in the headline, standfirst and first few paragraphs.

To make your next business document more persuasive, take a tip from the journalists by putting your key message right up front.

Just like that newspaper reader, your average time-pressed business person doesn’t have the time or inclination to hunt for what you think is important. So never bury your message.

A quick and simple way to identify your key message

In a journalistic piece, the key message is the latest news (and not the background to the news).

In a piece of business writing, the key message will usually be the thing you want your reader to do (and not, say, the background to why you want them to do it).

To get your inverted pyramid, start by asking yourself this question:

“What do I want my reader to do after reading this?”

Write down your answer. In an inverted pyramid, that’s your first line. Everything else you need to say follows from there.

Use the inverted pyramid to stand out

Most business writers don’t use the inverted pyramid. Instead, they bury their key message in boring background blurbage (how we got here) or self-congratulatory corporate puffery (why we’re so great).

That’s because the inverted pyramid contrasts with the way most of us were taught to write at school and university. In an essay, the most important information – the meat of your argument – is buried in the middle, like this:

Introduction

Meat (argument 1, argument 2, argument 3 etc)

Conclusion

The essay format works when you’ve got a captive audience (like your college professor).

But in a business context, where you have to fight for your reader’s attention, the inverted pyramid will give you the edge. And set you apart from all those other business writers who are still writing for their Prof.

7 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. “You didn’t mention the gun”
    “It’s there, in the second paragraph”
    What? Nobody reads the second paragraph”

    Or something like that. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Front Page – very funny film.

    Anyway Clare, I’ve often used the inverted pyramid concept for training people and explaining copy to clients. But every time I do I think it should be called the pyramid – just the short version of the story at the top, more detail as you get lower, and all the detail at the bottom for those who need it.

    Why do you think it’s always been referred to as the inverted pyramid? What have I been missing all these years?

    Thanks, Richard

  2. Clare Lynch says:

    The exact same thing has crossed my mind when explaining the concept to clients, Richard! I suppose it’s inverted in the sense that the points are placed in diminishing order of importance?

    Love the ‘gun’ anecdote.

  3. Ivan says:

    Hey Clare,

    this is so true, but I think that this format wouldn’t work when you have to report bad news to someone.

    You need to introduce a few softeners before saying the bad stuff. Makes it easier for the reader (psychologically).

    Anyways, I enjoyed your writing course on Udemy. I’ve learned so much – it was incredible.

  4. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks for swinging by, Ivan.

    I agree – you’d probably want to build in a few softeners, so long as you do so with care. I’ve seen examples of redundancy messages that open with several upbeat, self-congratulatory paragraphs about ‘our exciting future’, only to hit the reader 1,000 words in with ‘unfortunately, 1,200 of you won’t be part of this future’.

    So pleased you enjoyed my Udemy course – it’s very gratifying to hear you learned a lot!

  5. Andrew Ingram says:

    The Americans sometimes talk about the “nut graph” – the nutshell paragraph. All the who why what where when and how right up front.

  6. Clare Lynch says:

    That’s a great way to think of it, Andrew. I’ll use it with my clients!

  7. Michael Corry says:

    It’s true but in some ways responsible for the poor decisions made in business and politics. Those knee jerk reactions aren’t helped by politicians and business leaders who only have a small part of the information needed to make an accurate assessment and an informed decision. Writing accurately and arguing cogently aren’t only for the classroom.

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