There are two effective ways of structuring a document to present a case: the tri-partite list or sandwich, and the pyramid. The classic tri-partite list is:

  • Introduction
  • Body
  • Conclusion

The pyramid is the structure found in newspaper articles. The successive sections of a pyramid give increasing levels of detail. This writeup has been set out using the pyramid structure by way of illustration.

Tri-partite list

The applications of this overall structure include English essays, business letters, and rhetorical speeches. Implied in the structure is "Here is what I am saying", "Here are the details" and "Here is what I have just said".

Respect is given to the reader's (or listener's) attention span. There is enough information in the introduction to imply the scope and purpose of the argument. The reader knows when they can skip (or fast forward) to the conclusion. The conclusion performs the function of closure "There rests my case", letting the listener know that the speech has finished, or that the reader does not need to turn the page. In terms of approximate length, the tri-partite structure is symmetrical, unlike the pyramid.

Three is a good number

As a general tip when presenting arguments, lists of three work. If you present a list of two, the reader or listener will be thinking "... and?" if the list has bloated into 5 or 6, this can give the impression of rambling - but this can also be used for effect. For example, "I have a large number of reasons why this is not a good idea:..." and list them all, to bolster the impression that there are a large number of reasons.

It is often possible to group items in a list, consolidating them, so your list becomes a list of lists.

Example: letter of resignation

Dear Mr. Scrooge,

I regret to inform you that I wish to terminate my employment at 
Consolidated Widgets, and I am giving you four weeks notice to 
this effect. The reasons for this are as follows:

The salary scale your organisation offers does not match the 
IT employment market.

There seem to be no possible avenues for career progressions 
for somebody with my technical abilities. My interests are in 
technology, and I have no interest in becoming a widget
salesman.

Also, since joining Consolidated Widgets, I have not had the 
opportunity or encouragement to improve my programming skills, 
or knowledge of information technology. I recall that training 
courses were promised at interview, none of which have materialised.

I do have an offer elsewhere, which I have accepted. I wish you 
and my colleagues at Consolidated Widgets all the best for the future.

Yours sincerely,



Ponder Stibbons.

Note: don't use a letter like this unless you really mean it. This is not the one to use to scare your employer into giving you a salary hike.

Pyramid

The pyramid structure has applications where the reader is not required to read the entire document, to appreciate it. Besides newspaper articles, the pyramid structure is used successfully in sales brochures and computer manuals.

At the top appears the headline, product name, operating system command etc. Immediately below this is the standfirst (the editorial journalist's term for the bolded paragraph), mission statement, or synopsis. Below this is the detail. Sometimes in a magazine article, you can get a four tier pyramid.

Electronic media

I remember a former boss telling me that when browsing emails, he never reads anything beyond the initial scroll. Especially with preview panels, this may be true generally.

The lesson to be learned from this is: say what you are saying first, concisely, (don't beat about the bush), and don't make the message too long. Ironically, this is an argument in favour of jeopardy quoting, as this makes all the irrelevant stuff sink to the bottom.

The pyramid structure works well in emails, web pages, E2 writeups, and anywhere else where scrolled content is involved.

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