Bottom Line Inc

How to Present an Idea: Just Say It


It never ceases to amaze me how many people struggle with simply expressing an idea. I don’t know what the issue is. In both business and social settings, I watch people trip over their words and then be disappointed when their listeners “don’t get it.” Let’s see if I can help.

To paraphrase Nike—just say it. Let’s start there.

Making a Request

Many people find it scary to make a request, even a simple request…and especially many women.

Typical scenario: A man and a woman are driving along and pass a sign for an ice-cream stand. She says, “Do you want to stop for ice cream?” He says, “No,” and they keep driving. She starts pouting. Why? She really wanted ice cream but didn’t know how to make the statement “I want ice cream…let’s stop, please.”

Totally benign situation right? It’s just ice cream. But women have such a hard time asking for things or putting their needs out there. On the flip side, men may or may not say anything at all…they will just pull into the ice-cream stand’s parking lot. Men: Simply acting is not communicating.

The easiest way I have found to make a request—especially if I am uncomfortable with it—is to say, “I have a request…” and then go on with what I want. Examples…

“I have a request. Can you please remember to put the clothes in the laundry rather than leave them on the floor?”

“I have a request. Can you please pick up something at the store for me when you are on that side of town today?”

“I have a request. Can you please be sure to get to meetings on time so that we don’t have to waste other team members’ time?”

Those are easy, of course—but what about ones that you know are a little trickier? Like when you know you are being a little unreasonable and imposing on the other person?

Here is an interaction between my daughters this weekend. The scene: One daughter had given the other a birthday gift (a duffel bag) and then decided she wanted to get one for herself, as well, but the local store was out of stock and she actually needed the duffel for a trip. So she wanted to take back the duffel and order a new one to be sent home in a few days. (Have I thoroughly confused you? You really can’t make this stuff up.)

Daughter #1: “I am going on a trip next week, and I really wanted to get a duffel just like the one I gave you, but the store is out of them. So can I take yours and then order you a new one that you will get it in a few days? “

Daughter #2: “Isn’t there another store where you can buy one?”

Daughter #1: “Yes, but I don’t get membership points at that store. I want to buy it from the one that gives me points. And I really need the duffel, so please, can we do that?”

Daughter #2: “Hmmmm…”

The problem: Daughter #1’s request was all about what she wanted…and did not take into consideration Daughter #2’s perspective.

I witnessed this exchange. Here’s what I suggested as an alternative way of framing it so that Daughter #2 felt like her needs were being considered…

Daughter #1: “I have a really awkward request to make. I know that I just gave you this duffel for your birthday. I like it so much that I want to get another one so that I can take it on my trip next week. When I went to the store to buy it, I found out they were sold out. Would you mind terribly if I ordered a new one for you—that you would get in a few days—and took back your duffel today?”

By stating up front that this is an awkward request…and by being up front about why it’s awkward…it alleviates some of the fear of making the request. And it makes the recipient of the request far more sympathetic and open to listening. Even better, if the request was stated in this way, Daughter #2 may have wanted to help.

The bottom line—making a request requires two steps…

  1. State it up front. “I have a request”…“I need a favor”…or whatever version of a statement that lays it right out.
  2. Frame it for your listener. The request may be your request, but you are asking something from the listener. Keep his/her point of view in mind.

Presenting an Idea

I can’t tell you how often people I am meeting with essentially start in the middle of a sentence or a thought. “These are the ideas that I have for this project…” or “We can save money on XYZ if we just make this change…” What? What is XYZ, and what problem are we trying to solve???”

I started my career at a major New York City advertising agency, and one of the most important things that I learned during my time there was how to set up and frame a meeting. We didn’t simply jump in and start presenting budgets or storyboards. We first made a statement about why people were there and what the goal of the meeting was so that everyone was certain to be on the same page.

Think about your listeners…

  • Ask yourself, What do they know? What don’t they know?
  • Determine how much background information they already have or need.
  • Frame the conversation with background information on the situation and what you’re trying to do.
  • Don’t start in the middle of the sentence.

Here’s an example: “We are here today to review the current status of the development of [this new product]and to agree on how we are going to promote it. We have some creative concepts that have been developed that I want to share with you and get your feedback on….” You have stated what the goal of the meeting is…gave some background so that everyone knows where the project stands…and then stated what was to be discussed and acted upon. Easy, right? Then how come so many people start in the middle of a sentence?

“… I have these three pieces of copy I want you to look at…”

“… we have to come up with new ideas for this project…”

Give a framework, and the whole room will understand what is going on and be more engaged.

The same rules hold true at home and in the office. Rather than start a conversation midway with your spouse (e.g., “I called the Salvation Army today…”), give some background and info. “I have been thinking about cleaning out the attic and took some action today by calling the Salvation Army. Here is what I learned.” Or rather than, “Honey, look how cute this dog video is,” try, “Honey, I have been wanting a dog for quite a while and think the time is right to look into it. Can we talk about it?”

It seems—and sounds—so easy to simply state what you want clearly and completely, but if it was that easy, I wouldn’t have to suffer through so many confusing meetings where I call “pause” and set the stage. Three words: I have a request. Two little concepts: We are here today because… What I want from you is…”

Just say it.

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