Asking People to Do Things

by Craig Shrives

Selling Your Idea

In business writing, asking people to do things for you is about selling your idea. The best way to sell an idea is to align it with the workload or idea of the person you need to buy it.

Choice of Asking Words

So, how do you get people to do things for you? Well, there are a few aspects to this. The first thing we need to talk about is your choice of asking words.

When talking to your seniors (or clients), use these words:
  • I propose that...
  • It is proposed that...
When talking to people at your level, use these words:
  • You are requested to...
  • I request that you...
  • It is requested that...
When talking to your subordinates, you can either use the words above, or, if you need to be a bit more authoritative, these words:
  • You are to...
  • Bill is to...
Now, these suggestions have been stripped back to their bare bones, and in this form they look a bit formal. Of course, your surrounding sentences can be used to remove some of that formality. Also, trust yourself. You will know instinctively whether words like "you are requested" and "you are to" are appropriate for using on the people you work with. If they're not appropriate, just use the words that come naturally, like "Please..." or "Please could you...." The suggestions above are for when some formality is required.

There are dozens of ways of asking people to do things, but the list above will hopefully remove some of the thinking for you. If the whole list doesn't seem right for you (e.g., it's too proscriptive or unnatural sounding), then just remember this: If you are talking to someone senior or a client whom you can't afford to rankle, then propose something. It's clear. It's polite. It's business-like. It's a great word. But expect them to take your proposal, make it their own, call it their own, and then do it. From your perspective, job done.

Thank Them, Praise Them, Agree with Them and then Influence Them

Crowbarring your request or your opinion into other people's busy lives is difficult because you have to overcome their natural resistance to run with your idea (as opposed to theirs) or to do something new.

We've got a whole section on biases, which covers why people like their own ideas and why they are resistant to new ideas, so we won't dive into that here. What we are going to look at though is how to make them think they're running with their idea and not yours. Look at this quotation:
"Everyone is in love with his own ideas."
(Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, 18751961)
In my experience, that's accurate. It's why people work more enthusiastically on their own ideas than others' ideas. So, how can you divert their enthusiasm on to your idea? Easy. Do one of the following:
  • Make them think their idea is contributing to your idea.
  • You: We need to move that horse manure from the boss's car-parking space. Has anyone got any ideas?
    Johnny: We could use that bucket in the coffee room.
    You: Great idea. Off you pop.
  • Make them think your idea is contributing towards their idea.
  • You: Would you like to use that horse manure in the boss's car-parking space for that rose garden you were talking about?
    Johnny: Yes.
    You: Great. Help yourself to all of it.
  • Make them think your idea was their idea.
  • You: We'd probably get a fiver from the garden centre for all that horse manure in the boss's car-parking space.
    Johnny: We could use it on the rose bed.
    You: Great idea. Off you pop.
How do think Johnny would feel if you said: "Johnny, can you use that bucket in the coffee room to move that horse shit from the boss's car-parking space to your rose garden?"

It's my bet that, if he did it at all, it would be with less enthusiasm than in any of the scenarios above. Obviously, this is a made-up simple scenario, but the lesson is a good one.

I don't really see this "influence dance" happening over a three-sentence conversation like the ones above. In some jobs, they can last months and involve dozens of correspondence exchanges. Unless your idea is an obvious solution that no one else has thought of (often called a "silver bullet") or a Eureka-moment gem, you could spend hours debating the merits of your idea to achieve buy-in, and you probably will. Remember that everyone loves their own ideas. Therefore, they won't love yours. So, you're not starting from a good position when trying to sell an idea.

Of course, you can pay people or order people to carry out your ideas without bothering to shoehorn in their ideas, but I bet they take every second of every coffee break that's due to them and more if you do.
"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats."
(Computing pioneer Howard Aiken)
"The only people in the world who can change things are those who can sell ideas."
(American author Lois Wyse)
So, converting or aligning their ideas to yours is a great way to sell your idea. But how does this idea manifest itself in business writing? Well, early in the document, weave in lines of this nature:
  • Thank you for your idea/work...
  • Your idea/work was really useful...
  • We agree with your idea/work...
  • We liked your idea/work...
Later in the document, weave in lines of this nature:
  • We can develop this to [do what I want to do].
  • We can use this to inform [the things I want to do].
  • This aligns well with [what I want to do].
  • One observation is that [it's not what I want to do] so we might need to tweak that bit.
  • I have been thinking about your idea, and it could support [the things I want to do].
  • Your idea would also help the company [do what I want to do].
The secret to winning enthusiasm for your idea is to make it look as though your idea is a piece of their jigsaw or to encourage them to make their idea fit your jigsaw.
"A mediocre idea that generates enthusiasm will go further than a great idea that inspires no one."
(American businesswoman Mary Kay Ash)
Stealing their enthusiasm for their idea is a sure way to generate the necessary enthusiasm for yours. None of the words offered above may be a perfect fit for your specific scenario, but the bottom line is this: recognize their efforts and then start moulding them towards your aim.
  • Your boss's job description is the best document you'll ever read to help you sell your ideas.

Critical Thinking Test

Are you good at spotting the biases, fallacies, and other cognitive effects? Can you spot when statistics have been manipulated? Can you read body language? Well, let's see!
gold cup

gold cup

gold cup

  • This test has questions.
  • A correct answer is worth 5 points.
  • You can get up to 5 bonus points for a speedy answer.
  • Some questions demand more than one answer. You must get every part right.
  • Beware! Wrong answers score 0 points.
  • 🏆 If you beat one of the top 3 scores, you will be invited to apply for the Hall of Fame.
Scoring System

Guru (+)
Hero (+)
Captain (+)
Sergeant (+)
Recruit (+)
Help Us To Improve

  • Do you disagree with something on this page?
  • Did you spot a typo?
  • Do you know a bias or fallacy that we've missed?
Please tell us using this form

See Also