‘No’ is an incredibly powerful word. When you use it in the right way, it can make your creative business more attractive through better focus, better clarity and one of the most desirable qualities ever: exclusivity.
But how do you say ‘no’ without losing money, burning bridges and going against the socially-acceptable grain?
In my first job, a not-very-pleasant team leader asked me to work late, for no extra pay. Overtime is pretty normal when you work in a marketing agency, and I had done it before.
But this time the team leader said that, in return for working late, he would buy me (and the other juniors who worked past clocking off time) a bottle of wine. You know, to make up for the hours we would spend on his project rather than on much-needed leisure time.
I said no.
I didn’t say no because I didn’t want to finish the project. I didn’t say no because I wasn’t happy to work overtime.
I said no because I didn’t want him to think that my time was worth a £4.99 bottle of plonk from Sainsbury’s.
I said no because I wanted him to realise there was a line I wasn’t prepared to cross for my work.
I could’ve said “Yes, but don’t bother about the wine”, but I was very young and I was trying to prove a point.
That point still stands, and I still think of it now running my own business: saying ‘no’ means there’s a line. And a line means that you and your business have integrity.
A TOTAL LACK OF ‘NO’
How often do you really say ‘no’ in a day? Unless you’re in a really bad mood, probably not very often.
And that’s it – we associate saying ‘no’ with being negative, with being a wet blanket, a killjoy and generally a pain in the arse.
“No, I won’t help with the washing up.”
“No, I’m not coming to your party.”
In a social and cultural time where we really struggle to accept and express negative emotions as useful or healthy, saying ‘no’ is shocking. It’s a radical act.
It’s radical because it appears negative. It can even seem rude or impolite – probably the worst type of behaviour in British society – as it appears as though you’re putting your needs before someone else’s. Saying ‘no’ means you might disappoint someone, or let them down.
‘NO’ IN BUSINESS
All these social implications of ‘no’ filter through to the business world, and they’re especially pertinent if you work independently or run a creative business. People expect creative business owners to be ‘touchy-feely’, because they’re creative. They expect them to be nice, and ‘no’ is not nice.
Small, independent or creative businesses are also normally in a precarious position when it comes to saying ‘no’. Turning down work or customers with a ‘no’ might mean burning bridges. It might mean missing out on promotion. It might mean you don’t earn any money that month.
Saying ‘no’ starts to become a question of paying the bills, rather than whether you actually want to do the thing or not.
Some of us end up not saying ‘no’ for another reason; because we don’t know what we want to say ‘yes’ to. We don’t know who our target market is, what our ambitions are, what we really enjoy, or what the future of our business is. So we keep saying ‘yes’, even if we really want to say “No, no, no! I need a bloody break!”.
THE POINT OF ‘NO’
Saying ‘no’ means there is a line you won’t cross. It means that you, and your business, has integrity. It means you have principles which are so important to you that you’ll stick by them, no matter what.
By saying ‘no’ to things, you give yourself some time and space to think. You can take a step back from rushing towards another ‘yes’ and really consider what you want to do with your business. Constantly accepting things (whether they’re work, commitments, hobbies or even dates) doesn’t give you any time to reflect. On anything.
The point of ‘no’ is to focus your attention on what you really want.
In your creative business, that’s the core goals you have, the core services or products, the core market you want to attract. You stop saying a scattergun ‘yes’ and find the ability to focus.
Saying ‘no’ can help make your business more attractive to clients and customers because your output is more focus, your USP is clearer, and very importantly: you are exclusive. You do not say ‘yes’ to everything. Not everyone can have a piece of you. That makes you (and your creative business) valuable.
HOW TO SAY ‘NO’
We all have problems saying ‘no’, whether that’s to friends, family, or a delicious packet of ready salted crisps (I know it’s the most boring flavour, don’t judge me). Cultivating the ability to say no takes time and practice. I’m no life coach so if you’re a creative business owner who really struggles to say no and you feel like you might need extra (emotional) help, have a Google.
But if you know that you can say ‘no’, you just never seem to actually say it, then here’s some advice.
Keep a buffer.
Money is the main reason creative businesses and independent workers don’t say ‘no’. Saying ‘no’ might be turning down your only money for that month, which is a risky, frightening thing to do.
It’s hard at first but keep a financial buffer to help you say ‘no’ when you need to. Two or three months’ expenses is a useful amount, if you can do it, but even a month’s worth can be helpful.
Try not to take any shit.
The other very tricky time to say ‘no’ as a creative business or independent worker is in the middle of a project. Try not to take any shit from your clients or customers. You won’t know what that shit is until they do it and your gut goes “Hey, wait a minute…”. Then say ‘no’.
Changing briefs, changing payment terms or amounts, adding or taking away work, messing around with contracts or pissing about with timescales all constitutes ‘shit’ in my book. You are allowed to say ‘no’ if someone tries to mess you around.
Have a ‘no’ list.
Actually, have two lists: a ‘no’ list and a ‘yes’ list. On your ‘yes’ list, write everything you really, really want and like when it comes to your business; who you like working with, what work you like doing, etc. On the ‘no’ list, write all those things which give you that ‘euurrgghh’ gut reaction. It might be a type of work, client, customer, payment terms – whatever you want.
Write that list and stick to it.
These lists will grow as your business develops and you gain more experience, but even when you’re starting out you’ll know what makes you want to hide under a duvet.
Remember you are a commodity.
You might not say ‘no’ running your business because you’re worried you might let a client down, or put someone in a difficult position. Remember, you are a commodity: if you don’t do the work because the terms aren’t right, your client will most certainly find someone who will without much fuss.
Yes, you might lose the work – but do you want the work if you’re going to be stressed, underpaid and exploited?
Be kind when you say ‘no’.
You can still be a nice person and say ‘no’ – in fact, it makes it a lot easier to turn down opportunities when you are graceful and kind. In that first example of me saying ‘no’ as a junior team member, I wasn’t graceful – I was a bit obnoxious. Learning to be kind and saying ‘no’ has helped my business a lot.
By doing it, you won’t burn any bridges with potential clients or customers, but you also won’t sour a good relationship by accepting work that you simply don’t want to do.
You don’t have to explain yourself.
I know, right? You can just say ‘no’ without explaining why, or saying “I can’t” or “I’m afraid that”. For British people, this might just be a revelation.
Of course, I never, ever do this because I have frightfully intense levels of politeness buried deep within my genetic code. But you might be able to. It can be useful to explain why you’re saying ‘no’ if you feel it could resolve issues for the future, but that’s your choice.
Remind yourself why you’re saying ‘no’.
You are not a fool. You are not an arse. You are a creative business owner who values their time. You value the type of work you do and the type of people you work with. You don’t just say ‘yes’ to any old thing.
You are focused, clear on your goals and exclusive. You have lines you won’t cross. You have integrity. Remind yourself of these things if you wobble from the path of ‘no’.
‘NO’ MEANS ‘NO’ MEANS ‘YES, I HAVE TIME FOR BETTER THINGS’
Saying ‘no’ is a tricky thing. It’s socially and culturally conditioned, and yet it’s essential for our creative and professional health.
Saying ‘no’ brings focus to your business, makes your goals clear, and adds desirable exclusivity to your products or services.
‘No’ makes your creative business more attractive because it shows you have integrity. And it gives you more time to say ‘yes’ to better, more exciting, more ambitious and more meaningful things.