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Creative Professionals: When To Say No

Saying “no” is important skill to master for the health and long term vitality of your creative career and the relationships that form it. Here are a few thoughts on learning when to say no.

Bees

“If you want to gather honey, don’t kick over the beehive”  - Dale Carnegie

Saying ‘Yes’ is easy because it pleases the person who asks, makes us look capable and opens up opportunity. Often we frame saying ‘No‘ in the binary opposite way. If I say no to someone then I might feel like I am letting them down, looking incapable and missing an opportunity. However, sometimes saying no is far more important to the long term health of your creative career than saying yes.

Loyal Opposition

When you’re working for a client you’ve been hired to do a job and do it well. Part of that “doing the job you were hired to do” is developing what my friend Jez call’s Loyal Opposition. Rather than always giving the client exactly what they ask for, give them what they really want. It’s about filtering their request, which might not reflect the best creative judgement (after all that’s what they’ve hired you for!) and providing a solution that does serve their need and the spirit of their request but does so in a creatively positive way – in a way that’s good for the project and for them. An example would be when the client gets overly fixated on ‘message’ and asks you to strip out anything that might otherwise make the project creatively interesting, diluting the end result into something pretty safe, but boring. This is work you’re not going to be in a hurry to show anyone.

Developing this mentality of being able to say no, by gently pushing back on client requests that you know won’t serve them, or the project, in the best way is a very valuable skill to learn. The manner in which you do this is obviously the tricky part. One useful method is to ask questions that reframe the request in a way that draws out their objectives and motivations behind the request, rather than in a way that creates a client vs creative conflict. Why are they asking for a change you feel is detrimental? What are they hoping to achieve? Can you think of a creatively better way to deliver the same result?

ways to say no to your clients

Delivering satisfaction

Obviously in any creative project the quality and efficacy of the end product is extremely important but service is what happens between people on the road to the end product. That journey is what is most often remembered after a job is finished. At the end of the day it’s the people you work with who will hire you, not the work. Being able to say no in creative discussions, budget meetings and feedback sessions is an inevitable part of that journey. So although loyal opposition is important it needs to be held in tension with delivering satisfaction to your clients. If you’re an obstreperous creative, always fighting to get your way, then you may produce what you consider great work, but you’ll be a nightmare to work with.  Life’s too short for that.

Ultimately you are there to work in service to your clients. So what if it comes down to a client vs creative request and they categorically want it their way? Give them what they want, after a bit of loyal opposition. The discussion is the part in which you seek to best serve them, rather than simply always saying yes. The product is what they’ve paid for, so they get the final call. But make the creative journey a pleasant one and they’ll be happy to take it again with you.

Building a reputation

building a reputationImage from Brian Smithson on Flickr

Reputation is what other people say about you when you are not there. So how do you influence that conversation?

“Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation, for your character is what you are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”  - Dale Carnegie

The first way potential new clients will encounter you is either through a personal recommendation or through encountering your work. Both are important but people come before product. As we’ve seen above, serving clients by saying no (and sometimes ‘no, but happy to serve you’) is a delicate tightrope to walk. But in walking it you will be strengthening your character in the process. Good character leads to a good reputation. Have the resolve to say no and offer up what you really think is a valuable part of your creative service. Being humble and gladly willing to serve the client, even when you think they are wrong, is also a great skill to cultivate. Hopefully the more your clients work with you, the more they’ll grow to trust your creative judgement and the more they’ll defer to your better judgement.  Clients who trust you will lead to results you can be proud of.

After all, protecting the product is an essential part of protecting your ‘brand’ over the long term (as prospective clients will always want to see the goods no matter what people say about you). Ensuring you come out with a finished product you and your client are proud of is the goal of ‘loyal opposition’ and ‘delivering satisfaction’.  Having the deftness to navigate saying ‘No’ is a key part of that process.

If you’ve got any great tips on saying no to clients with successful results – do share them in the comments below!

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