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Author Topic: The Lure of the Inverted Pyramid  (Read 387 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: May 31, 2017, 04:22:51 PM »

In the course of your professional or occupational life, you will read or hear a lot of advice on how to write business reports in English. I am normally hesitant to add my two cents’ worth for a very simple reason. How a report should sound like and look like really depends on the character of your organization. As you all probably know by now, every company or institution of appreciable age gets encrusted with traditions, routines, and quirks that make it either a delight or a pain in the neck to work for. One only needs to sit down once as an observer in a typical board of directors meeting to see what I mean. Whether long or short, it often does feel as unbearably tedious as the English-language reports presented and discussed in it. This is not surprising at all. As the old joke goes, a board is a body that takes hours to make minutes and needs at least a second to get anything approved.

But seriously now, I have discovered a way to make business reports more readable and persuasive to those who are obligated to read them, and I am glad that I finally found the occasion to share it. I call this technique the lure of the inverted pyramid. It is an art form that is actually no different from that developed by newspaper reporters for most of their front-page stories. Its secret is this: it first tells you the ultimate result of any chain of events, rather than giving you a blow-by-blow, chronological narration of the events and the developments that led to the outcome. It is very much like putting reality on a headstand, which of course looks like a very unseemly and unnatural thing to do, but it works. Take a look at this example of the inverted pyramid:

The board chairman of a leading energy firm lost his cool last night when told that the high profits his company had been reporting for the past three years were actually huge losses, the result of massive manipulation of financial reporting by his key executives.

Presiding over a board meeting that began at six and lasted until past midnight, the distraught official threw a tantrum and fired all the executives on the spot. In less than three hours he had appointed an entirely new executive committee to do damage control and take over the management of the financially distressed company.

Now compare the above passage to this upright pyramid, which is actually much closer to the reality of the chain of events:

The chairman of the board of directors of the leading energy company presided over a board meeting of the company last night. The meeting took up the matter of the high profits that the company had been reporting for the past three years. It started at six in the evening and lasted until past midnight. In the course of the meeting, the chairman found out that his key executives had been massively manipulating the financial reports of the company. They had been doing it for the past three years. So the company had been making not high profits after all but huge losses instead. He naturally got very angry. He started screaming and throwing things around, then fired all of his key executives right then and there. During the next three hours he formed an entirely new executive committee. He ordered this new executive committee to immediately take over the management of the company and to minimize the damage of what he discovered to the reputation of the company.

The reason why the inverted pyramid is infinitely superior to the upright one should be obvious by now. As I already said, it works, and it works all the time. It works because the mind works that way. It does because business people, especially those harassed to produce profits or results, are in a hurry most of the time. They are too busy figuring out where to get the next payroll or how to restructure a maturing short-term loan that the company had incurred simply to stay alive. They really don’t have the leisure and the patience to read or listen to straight chronological narratives. They really don’t have the time for details and trifles. Their only interest at the moment is the significant outcome, not the unfolding process—no matter how exciting—that led to that outcome. Of course they may later want to know the how and the why of the things that happened, but that will only be for curiosity’s sake or simply for the record. All they really need now is a clear running idea of what they call the bottomline.

So the next time you have to write a report to your boss, don’t do him an upright pyramid, as many do and think they are doing a great job. Unless he or she is a masochist and specifically asks for it, don’t give him reports that start from the beginning, proceed to the middle, and end at the end. That is the Hans Christian Andersen formula, but in this context it’s actually good only for putting a mild dread to people and then putting them to sleep. Then most of all, don’t make the mistake of writing your boss an essay or a long dissertation either, in the same way that we loved or hated to do back in college when we had to impress our professors with our English rather than with our wisdom. That will truly be rubbing it in, and you could be killed or fired on the spot for doing that.

God is truly in the details, as a great artist had discovered in the course of his work many decades ago, but as for business reports, the truth, the way, and the light is in the inverted pyramid. It will really be foolhardy for anyone to dismiss its lure and try anything else. (circa 2003-2004)

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times and subsequently appeared as Chapter 28 in the Uses and Misuses section of his book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo, © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: May 31, 2017, 05:08:50 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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