Untangle Your Thinking - Logic Tree Post #2

If you haven't already, have a look at the post that precedes this one:

What's your point - Logic Tree Post #1

So - if you've got this far, you've done your work, you've been through your analysis, you've figured out what you're trying to say.

Now - how do you say it with clarity?

How do you make it as easy as possible to get your audience in a position where they can sensibly agree or disagree with your conclusion (as opposed to putting your audience in a position where they spend all their brain power trying to unpick your tangled thinking so they can even begin to decide whether or not they agree)?

How do you use a logic tree to untangle your thinking?

The answer? Follow these steps:

  1. Know your key line: talk to yourself for 5 minutes like a journalist would to their editor
  2. Don’t choose confusing logical structures: forget how you arrived at your conclusion – it doesn’t help
  3. (The Biggie) Get away from your computer and physically draw up the logic tree
  4. Now you can write, using your logic tree branches to provide your chapter headings

I wrote this post from a logic tree. (I thought it would be pretty hypocritical not to). A portion of it is included below. You can see how it dictated the structure, sequence and content of this post.

Say it with Clarity: Step 1 - Think like a journalist

Get the key line out first. If your goal is clarity, don’t make us guess, don’t take us on a journey – just spit out the answer. Up front. First thing.

Journalists don't write like anyone else. They don't write like novelists. They don't write like magazine feature writers. They don't write conversationally, the way they speak. In fact, journalistic writing follows neither the rules of natural conversation, nor the principles we normally think of when we think of some aspects of good writing - like suspense or storytelling.

What journalists do is they write hierarchically. The idea behind a good piece of journalism is that from the first sentence (the headline, or the ‘key line’) you should be able to understand what's going on. With the next sentence you begin to get more detail. In fact, you should be able to (and feel compelled to) read further into the article only to the extent you want to get more and more detail in support or explanation of the stuff - and ultimately the headline - you read above.

One story about where this came from is journalists broadcasting stories during the war were constantly at risk of being cut off the airwaves, and so had to develop a style that would ensure that as their broadcast carried on, the most important stuff got out first and each successive sentence was of lesser, ‘filler’ value so the message of the story would be understood no matter when they broke transmis….

So do you know your key line?

Say it with Clarity: Step 2 - Forget how you arrived at your conclusion

This is a discipline in your message structuring that will help keep you from creating a tangle in the first place:

This step is about removing confusing, extraneous structure. Given our natural desire to tell stories, and given that the way we came to whatever conclusion we’re communicating is probably already a natural story, there might be a temptation to use that sequence of events as the default structure for our writing.

For example, let's say you were doing a piece of work for a client and it took you 2 months of data gathering, hypothesis testing and conclusion deduction to get to your answer. The temptation is often to take your client along the journey you took, so they can see how your thinking evolved, and how you came to your end result.


This synthesis is what your audience or client is paying YOU for - to untangle the mess of data, indications, ideas etc... in order to come to a conclusion. Why make them re-live the tangled process with you? What they're interested in is the answer you’ve synthesized (the headline). They want to know whether or not you can support it enough so they believe it too, (and probably, they want to know whether they can convince someone else of the answer using your arguments.)

(I came to decide to write this article as a result of an experience I had helping a colleague re-write a report to a client. I based my advice to him on the teachings of Barbara Minto, author of The Pyramid Principle, and this recent experience made me think it was worth posting about – but for clarity in this message of how to use logic trees I haven’t told you any of that – it’s extraneous.)

Think like a journalist – get the answer out first. Drop the other mess.

Say it with Clarity: Step 3 – (The Biggie) Structure using a Logic Tree

Now that you have decided what your key idea is, and now that you have shed the temptation to tell the story of how we came to the conclusion, you can then use a logic tree to determine a clear structure for getting your message out.

A logic tree, also called a pyramid structure, is a physical chart of your ideas grouped in a hierarchical, logical way. It is like a storyboard, but with cause-and-effect relationships.

A logic tree is an org chart in which your main point is the CEO and everything else is organised in support.

Logic trees, or ‘Pyramids’ are best described by Barbara Minto in her book The Pyramid Principle, which has made Barbara one of my Clarity Heroes. If this article whets your appetite for using logic trees, go out and buy her book immediately, read it and start applying her thinking to your writing.

You could just have a pyramid conjured up in the back of your mind, but it is very helpful to create a physical tree you can look at, play with and critique.

You can make a logic tree using your notebook, post-its on a wall or tools like mind-mapping software. MS Visio works a treat. (If I have a meeting room at my disposal, I like to put post-its on the big windows and draw around them right on the glass using dry-erase markers. I just think writing on the windows is fun!) Very liberating.

Logic trees will be pyramid-shaped in concept, and if you draw them out, they’ll often be pyramid-shaped in practice (depending on the detail of supporting evidence under each point.)

Here is the logic tree I used to create this section: (click to enlarge)

My key line for this article is that “in order to say it with clarity, you should use a logic tree to structure your argument.”

The first line of my logic tree pyramid (in black) shows the main steps I think will help you to apply this Clarity Rule to your own work: (1: getting clear on the main idea, 2: removing confusing stuff that came from how you got your idea, 3: using a logic tree to shape your argument and finally 4: writing based on your resulting tree structure.)

We are currently in section 3 – “Use a logic tree”, and you can see from the tree itself that I believe logic trees are good for the following three reasons:

  1. Readers get clarity (because we think structurally, and thus presenting ideas congruently with our thinking process makes them more clear.)
  2. Logic trees force you to organise your thinking (because there are implied rules and because you can then test your thinking against those rules), and
  3. If you set up your ideas using a logic tree, then your text basically writes itself! Your structure and supporting information is already ordered for you.

If I follow the tree, I can then go on to expand on any of those elements – such as listing out the logical rules we need to follow when organizing our thinking, and describing what some of the detail behind those rules looks like. But let’s do this in order:

Because: Logic trees give readers clarity:

Someone who wants to learn your view on a subject is faced with a pretty complex task. They have to take in all of your points, interpret them, sort them, then hold them together so they relate them. Finally, once they have mapped out in their minds what you are saying, they have to test your ideas against their own knowledge and beliefs, weigh that against the support you have provided and decide if they agree with you.

The more we can do to help our readers with that sorting job, the easier it is for them to get to the important part of agreeing or disagreeing.

We’ll look at this more specifically when we examine the rules for grouping ideas later, below.

Because: Logic trees make you organize your thinking

The biggest bonus to a logic tree is that it can help you ensure your thinking is both coherent and complete. Since you’re organizing your thinking in a pyramid structure, when you draw your ideas out, it instantly becomes awkward to build if you aren’t following logical rules. Also, knowing the logical rules means that after you’ve structured your views, you can test whether your thinking complies.

If you can’t build a logical pyramid, you also probably haven’t built a coherent story.

The logic tree pyramid rules:

  • Ideas at any level of your tree are summaries of the ideas below.
  • Group apples with apples – to make sense grouped ideas should be the same kind of idea
  • Order the ideas in your groups in a logical way

Rule 1 – Ideas at any level of your tree must be summaries of the ideas below: Well this just makes sense. In the same way that a paragraph is a summary of the sentences within it, writing where your sub-points all support your points with what a reader will expect. The easiest way to check you’re doing this is in rule number 2, next:

Rule 2 – Group apples with apples. If you have five ideas that can be collectively summarized by one level of abstraction into the idea above, then each of those five ideas will necessarily be the same kind of thing:

For example: grapes, apples, mangoes, bananas and clementines are all kinds of fruit.

In contrast: grapes, shopping, dignity, expensive and ‘be careful’ are … well… nothing. At least nothing I can make sense of very easily.

Using that extreme example might make it sound silly or trivial, but this is a danger point and a potential Clarity Blocker. Nonsensical, accidental logical groupings are insidious in writing and really worth checking for. It is easy to end up going down a tangent if writing the group of ideas is long and involved, and thus easy to lose sight off the fact that the group of ideas is meant to be collectively in support of the summary idea above. Ever asked: “What was I talking about again?” Exactly.

So how do you check you have a sensible group? Easy. Just name each of your ideas with one word, and see if you can assign a plural noun to the group of them. Could be anything:

  • Fruits
  • Steps in a process
  • Reasons
  • Examples
  • Proposed changes
  • Problems
  • Recommendations

As long as you can name them, there’s a good chance they’re a coherent group. In our first example above with grapes apples mangoes bananas and clementines, they can all be called fruits. Check. In the second example of grapes shopping dignity expensive and ‘be careful’, you’ve got a fruit, an activity, an emotion or state, a description and some advice. Definitely not a group. At best, some of those ideas could loosely be tied to the notion of acquiring fruit – but that would be quite a stretch. Plus, it would be wrong – and as a reader you would have wasted time trying to guess at the grouping.

So: make your logic tree, group your ideas as summaries of the layer above, and check you can name those grouped ideas with a plural noun. (Following the logic tree behind this post, we are currently at the end of number 2 of a group of ‘rules’)

Rule 3 – Order the ideas logically.

This is where some of the persuasive magic and dramatic artistry can happen. In her book, Barbara comes right out and says:

“Controlling the sequence in which you present your ideas is the single most important act necessary to clear writing. The clearest sequence is always to give the summarizing idea before you give the individual ideas being summarized” - Barbara Minto, The Pyramid Principle

There is an art and a science to ordering groupings properly, and the book devotes an entire chapter to getting it right, but in a nutshell, Barbara asserts there are only four possible logical ways to order ideas:

  • Deductively (major premise, minor premise, conclusion)
  • Chronologically (first, second, third)
  • Structurally (Boston, New York, Washington, or Design, Engineering, Marketing, Sales), and
  • Comparatively (First most important, second. Or: these three problems, all the rest)

Barbara asserts that our minds can perform four kinds of analytical activities: deductive reasoning, working out cause-and-effect relationships, dividing a whole into parts and categorizing - and these activities correspond naturally with idea order:

  • If it was formed by reasoning, then you group your ideas in argument order
  • If it was worked out as a cause-and-effect, then group in time order
  • If commenting on a structure, then order structurally, and
  • If categorizing, then order by importance.

We have already established that organizing ideas into a logic tree helps our audience digest our position because it helps us to present our ideas the way our minds work to absorb them. This step of ordering our ideas within sound logical groups is the poster-boy example for this, up in shining lights.

All this organization also has the by-product of taking care of all the hard work:

Because: Using a Logic Tree means the text writes itself

Say it with Clarity: Step 4 – Go ahead and write, using the tree as your chapter guide.

Once you’ve finished, you’ve got your key idea chosen, you’ve reduced the extraneous rubbish, you’ve designed and checked your message using a logic tree all the hard work is basically done! You just have to tour through the branches and flesh them out with words. You can be loose, just writing free prose that will magically have the welcome quality of being easy for your audience to follow. Equally, if you want to be formal, your paragraph numbering system is already in place.

  • The top level will be your introduction (including a key-line statement of your conclusion)
  • The next level down the tree will be your main sections eg: 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0
  • Down each section will be your progressively more detailed sub-sections eg 1.1.1, 3.1.2 etc…

That’s it!

Clarity Rule: Structure your point: Start with a logic tree

Keep an eye out for Logic Tree post #3: Setting it all up with the right introduction


  1. Dear Greg, have you not not written a Logic Tree post #3? I have not found it anywhere, unfortunately.

  2. Thanks so much for this. I've tried reading the Pyramid Principle and found it so frustrating to read that I wanted to throw it in the bin. I knew the ideas were good though, and this post is exactly what I needed: the ideas distilled and structured in plain English!

  3. Wendy - thank you so much for your comment. I'm *delighted* the article was of some help. (One often wonders.) I appreciate you taking the time to write.

    All the best,