Inverted Pyramid Writing
Summarize First, Explain Later
One of the skills of a good news journalist is being able to report a story clearly, concisely, and in a way that grabs the reader's attention right from the start. A quick flick through any newspaper will reveal many examples of how to tell a story in as few words as possible.
It's a skill that can have real benefits in the workplace, too. For example, it is a real time-saver to read and produce reports that are attention-grabbing, succinct, and that have all the important information clearly summarized right at the beginning. It encourages the writer to focus on what's important, and the reader does not get "bogged down" in over-long communications.
This style of writing is often called the "Inverted Pyramid," and, in this article, we explore how to use this technique, we examine its pros and cons, and we look at a worked example.
Understanding the Inverted Pyramid
The Inverted Pyramid is a simple, effective model for producing eye-catching, quickly digestible content. It takes the elements of writing, such as introductions, descriptions, conclusions, and explanations, and puts them into order according to their importance.
In the Inverted Pyramid model (see figure 1, below), the most important information goes first. This is called front loading. This opening section, known technically as the summary lede, should summarize your entire message in a few sentences. Subsequent paragraphs then present less critical information, in order of diminishing importance.
Returning to our example of a newspaper story, the idea of the Inverted Pyramid is that a reader gets the most important information right away. If he or she stops reading after the first two paragraphs, he will still have the main points of the story. If he continues reading, he can still stop anywhere within the article and not miss any vital details. It also allows editors to shorten the story to fit the available space on a page, without losing any of its key elements.
This approach can also be suitable for business writing. As with any communication, you want your message to be received and understood, and front loading your reports or emails means the reader will immediately get the points you are making. Also, your communications will stand out from ponderous and wordy ones, so a reader is more likely to pick your reports out of the pile on her desk in future.
Figure 1 – The Inverted Pyramid
Using the Inverted Pyramid
Here are four simple steps for using the Inverted Pyramid.
1. Choose the Most Important Information
Pinpoint the most important part of your message, and work out the least amount of information you need to give people to get it across. Decide which details are less and least important, and plan a "running order" for your piece.
2. Front Load Your Communication With a Short, Strong Summary Lede
Set a maximum of 30 words for your crucial opening section, or as many as will fit on a screen before you have to scroll down. Limit it to a few short paragraphs or sentences that summarize the key details, and lead with your most important point.
Covering the "five Ws and one H" of a story (what, who, where, when, why, and how) here can be too much. Make your priority the "what" and the "who." The "where" and "when" can follow next, and then the "why" and "how." Remember to keep things simple; use everyday language, and avoid jargon.
3. Add Your Supporting Information and Detail
This is where you include the bulk of your information, expand on your argument, describe the issues, or supply contextual material. Illustrations, quotes and statistics can also go here. Such details will help the reader, but aren't essential for understanding your message.
Keep this section clear and concise. Your communication might have more "room to breathe" here than in your introduction, but you don't want to lose your readers by overwhelming them with detail. Split your points into separate paragraphs, and front-load them by making your point and then elaborating on it.
4. Close Your Piece With Background or Bonus Information
You can end your communication with information that may not be directly related to its main subject, but which might help someone to understand it. This could include background or historical detail.
The Inverted Pyramid is ideally suited to writing emails – one of the most fundamental types of business writing. Chances are, you read or write dozens of emails a day, so you can reduce information overload by "cutting to the chase." And, when you have to write detailed reports that aren't suited to this technique, you can include an executive summary that does use it.
Avoiding Potential Pitfalls
The Inverted Pyramid is a multi-purpose writing tool, but it isn't a universal one. It doesn't group similar information together or present it in chronological order. So, if you don't "shuffle" your information with great care, you risk confusing your reader.
You also risk losing your readers after your summary lede. They will have the key points but, if that's all they read, they will miss out on the supporting information and other important, but not necessarily attention-grabbing, detail.
It's not appropriate for every business writing situation, either. You often need to "hook" people with a good opening, but you may not always want to say everything straight away. For example, sometimes, you'll want to build a compelling, step-by-step argument, or follow a prescribed template for a corporate report. Or, you may be writing for people with lots of time on their hands, or who are looking for a more predictable storytelling approach, with a beginning, a middle and an end.
There are other approaches you should consider that might be more suitable to the type of communication you are writing. Our articles on Writing Reports and 5-15 Reports are good for getting your message across in a formal setting. Chunking is a way of grouping similar information together, and AIDA is an alternative tool for producing attention-grabbing material such as emails.
Example of Inverted Pyramid Writing
Let's say you work for a manufacturer of household appliances. Your quality control team has discovered a major design fault on an old model of microwave oven, and you've been tasked with writing a press release to announce a product recall.
Your first effort reads like this:
"Holmesdale Kitchenware Inc. has been manufacturing home cookery appliances since 1957.
Our models are amongst the most highly regarded and safest on the market. However, it has come to our attention that one of our models, the B-1976Q, has a design fault that could prove hazardous to users of the appliance.
We would like to ask anyone who has bought one of these models to kindly contact us at email@example.com as soon as possible so that we can arrange a refund or exchange your microwave for a new model. This applies only to models that were sold in late 2014 at the Myxxo Mart chain of retailers."
This press release is wordy, slow and indirect. The version below shows how it would have more impact, and be better presented, using the Inverted Pyramid:
"URGENT PRODUCT RECALL. Holmesdale Kitchenware Inc. announces an immediate partial product recall of B-1976Q microwave ovens due to a potentially hazardous electrical fault.
Our testing procedures have revealed that the internal magnetron unit can overheat and damage the oven. The recall applies to B-1976Q models bought from branches of Myxxo Mart between September 1, 2014 and December 31, 2014.
There have been no reports of any injuries to users but, as a precaution, we urge customers who bought a model B-1976Q microwave from the above retailer between the given dates to stop using the product.
If you have one of the microwaves covered by this recall notice, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call us on 555-1966, to arrange a full refund or exchange of your microwave for a new model."
This example opens with the "who" and the "what." You then move on to the "where" and "when," before closing with "why" and "how." The whole announcement is sharper but, most importantly, you've got people's attention at the outset, and immediately given them the key information.
The Inverted Pyramid is a simple writing model that grabs readers' attention and gets your message across immediately.
To use this model, front-load your communication with the essential details. Follow these with less critical information in order of decreasing importance, and finish with the least important information of all.
Apply This to Your Life
Experiment with the Inverted Pyramid whenever you write. Don't feel that it's only for newsletters or press releases. Try adapting it for everyday communications like emails, social media, instant messages, and even verbal communications, too. In doing so, you could improve the clarity, effectiveness and efficiency of your communications.