How NOT to Sell Your Idea at Work

Unless you want to damage your credibility and undermine your career, don’t make these 10 blunders when presenting a proposal at your workplace.

A man in a suit writes on a white board in a work meeting. There is a piece of paper with a target drawn on it taped to his back.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“I work for a business strategy firm that encourages input from employees on ways of expanding our menu of services. Every few months we have ‘Pizza and Proposals Day,’ where employees are encouraged to pitch new marketing programs.

“After lunch we listen to presentations from colleagues; some, well-researched, feasible — while others, poorly thought out, damaging the employee’s credibility and their tenure. I have a couple of good ideas but do not want to make a fool of myself. Do you know of a guide, video, anything that would help me? Thanks, ‘Don.’”

Avoiding the Wrong Steps Enhances your Chances for Acceptance

Don would be well-served by grabbing a copy of the HBR Guide to Building Your Business Case (opens in new tab): Tell a Compelling Story, Identify Stakeholders, Analyze Risk and Return. I recently interviewed the book’s author, Ray Sheen. In reading this excellent, by-the-numbers approach to turning a proposal into reality, it was clear that Ray understands the mechanics of reaching and persuading an audience of in-house decision-makers to come on board with an idea developed by a colleague.

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He is president of Product and Process Innovation (opens in new tab), based in Greenville, S.C. His firm trains and consults in the areas of technology deployment and digital transformation. He is also an adjunct professor of business at the Southern New Hampshire University. With a BS in mechanical engineering from the U.S. Air Force Academy, a Master’s in Astronautical Engineering from MIT, Sheen is one of the most interesting people I’ve had the pleasure interviewing this year.

Presenting Your Idea In-House: Don’t Do It the Wrong Way

I asked him to set out what must be avoided if your new idea or concept is to have a real chance of acceptance.

1. Fail to know your audience. Assume they will understand what you are talking about.

Consequences: Without explaining what parts of the business are being impacted and how your idea will make money, it will neither be understood by decision-makers nor approved. So, find out who sits on the review board, and their level of education, experience and responsibility in the area you are discussing.

2. Fail to know management’s ‘hot button’ issues.

Consequences: What is the major strategic initiative they are working on right now? Popular ones today are sustainability, ESG (environmental social governance) and supply chains. If your proposal impacts one of these, they will be interested, and if it does not, they might not.

3. Fail to explain the results of both doing/not doing the project – in financial terms.

Consequences: If they don’t see a negative consequence to idly standing by and doing nothing, they will take on some other project, not yours. Always keep in mind that money is the language of business.

4. Fail to present your proposal as a story that you live!

Consequences: Numbers alone put people to sleep. An audience wants the speaker to live the presentation. A good story helps them capture and experience your vision of what the opportunity will create.

5. Fail to verify the accuracy and consistency of the information presented.

Consequences: If you tell them on Page 1 that the project costs $1 million, and then on Page 10, the figure jumps to $5 million, you have just destroyed any trust the decision-makers have in you! So, a third party should proofread your material, as we become blind to our typos and other errors.

6. Keep your handouts vague so anyone who hasn’t attended your presentation can’t determine the project’s desirability.

Remedy: Be sure that even without attending the presentation, your ideas can be followed using the written material alone.

7. When there are multiple options, fail to tell you audience the ones that you prefer.

Consequences: They will question your ability to make decisions. Always remember that when you step into the role of advocating a business case, your credibility is on the line.

8. Be unprepared for either a yes or a no.

Consequences: If they “yes,” are you ready — and can you describe the next step? If you are not prepared for “what‘s next” the proposal may be approved but won’t get off the ground.

If they say no, then at some convenient time, approach a decision-maker and ask for their feedback. Be polite. Make it clear that you care about the organization.

Possibly they do not trust the numbers or your plans for implementation were not well-presented. They may love the idea but can’t say yes because they don’t have confidence in the implementation. If you do not have a well-thought-out plan, then you come across as a dreamer, not a doer.

9. Fail to anticipate questions.

Consequences: This undermines confidence in your ability to run the project or implement the solution. You lose face. It can put your job at risk.

10. Fib! Make stuff up!

Consequences: You have destroyed your credibility. Once senior managers determine that you lie, you will never receive significant responsibility. You’ve proved that you can’t be trusted.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law (opens in new tab)." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."