How to Say “No” as a Creative

February 26, 2022

As creatives, we are expected to fulfill a wide variety of roles. Those roles (probably) include, and are not limited to:

  • Brilliant Idea Generator
  • Artist
  • Problem Solver
  • Mind Reader
  • Emergency Fixer
  • Pixel pusher
  • Director
  • Designer
  • Copywriter
  • Photographer
  • Developer
  • Strategist
  • Animator
  • Editor

And sometimes, the role of “friend and confidant” also makes the list. 🤷‍♀️

As creatives, we should be nice and comfy with the word “no.” But if we were, we probably wouldn’t be here writing (and reading) this very blog.

So, plain and simple? Our clients expect a lot from us. And while it would be really nice to be a master of everything, it’s safe to say that mastering everything as a creative simply isn’t possible. In other words, you’re going to need to learn how to comfortably say no when other people ask you to do something that doesn’t fall within your zone of genius. 

Because you are a genius at many things, but maybe not everything. And that’s okay!

Now, as creatives who love a challenge and trying new things, saying no can be really difficult. We have the tendency to fear that our choice to not offer a specific service might make our current clients leave. We feel an unfair responsibility to deliver anything (and everything) that our clients ask for, regardless of whether we really want to, or should. Because they ARE the ones paying us all of the money after all – right?

Saying no doesn’t need to feel awkward, or even negative. You might be thinking, “a non-negative ‘no’? How is that possible?” But here’s the thing: saying no with as much grace and professionalism as possible is a necessary and learned skill that’ll help you grow your business, rather than stunt it. So, let’s talk about how you can start saying no without any of the guilt! 

I’ve included three common scenarios that we creatives need to say no to, and some advice on how to tackle those situations. Make sure to read to the end of this blog to grab my free email prompts for awkward client situations! 

Saying No: When you don’t want to work with someone.

Turning down a potential client means saying no to money, and saying no to more work for your portfolio. And as a motivated and inspired creative, the thought of that might be overwhelming. 

Truth be told, when it comes to booking creative work, you’re going to attract the same type of work that you continue to take on. So, at some point, you’ll have to start being picky about who you say yes to in order to attract more dream projects and clients!

Make sense? We hope so. Here are some reasons why you might want to say no to a potential client:

  1. They’re in an industry that doesn’t align with your dream clients
  2. Their style doesn’t align with yours
  3. They need a service that you don’t enjoy offering
  4. You just don’t feel excited about it or have a gut feeling that the project won’t go well

All of these are perfectly valid reasons to say no! While you might feel bad about it in the moment, just think of it this way: you clearly aren’t the best fit for this client. If you were to go ahead and say yes to them anyways (against the better judgment of your conscience and gut), it wouldn’t be a good fit for their business. 

Why? Because regardless of how talented and incredible you are, you don’t align with their needs, industry or style. Wouldn’t it be better to say no, and allow that brand or client to find someone who is equally excited to work with them?

(Yes, yes it would!)

By saying no, you aren’t being rude. You’re supporting them in the best way that you can – through honesty and transparency with yourself. 

Quick Tip:
To make the actual act of saying no feel less harsh, try sharing a list of referrals of other people in your industry that you think might be interested in the project. That way, you aren’t leaving them empty-handed.

Saying No: When your client asks you to do something that you don’t agree with.

In a perfect world, our clients would approve everything that we show them! But unfortunately that’s not always the case.

Maybe your client has an idea that you don’t think is very good, and they’re eager for you to try it out. Maybe they have an idea that you know will actually work against them and their brand (you are the expert here, after all!), and even after you logically and professionally explain your reasons why that particular project or decision wouldn’t be a good fit, they’re determined to still go for it. You could always go along with your client’s decision, and let them learn things on their own. But if you want to assert your role as an expert, here’s how to have that conversation over a phone call:

  1. Acknowledge the client’s idea and thank them for their input.
  2. If they haven’t already, ask them to explain in detail what they think this change will accomplish and why they feel that it will work better than what you already have. Find out what the end goal is that they’d like to achieve through this proposed change. 
  3. Again, acknowledge their idea, but share that you aren’t sure it is the best option + explain why.
  4. If you have another idea that will accomplish the client’s goal, share that with them and highlight the ways that it would be different (and better) than their idea. Show examples if you need to! Sometimes clients need to see something tangible in order to realize what actually works best.
  5. Don’t forget to ask for their input! Allowing them to give their insight while on the phone with you will minimize the likelihood of them having second (or third) thoughts later on.

If the client still doesn’t agree with you after that conversation, that’s okay. Just be proud that you stood up for what you believed in, and view it as an opportunity to decide whether you should do what the client is asking for, or cancel the project because it’s too far out of your comfort zone. 

Quick Tip:
Have this conversation on the phone, and then follow up with a brief email summarizing your conversation afterwards! 

Saying No: When your client asks you to do something that’s beyond the scope of the project.

We’ve all been here. Many of us have, unwittingly and unfortunately, experienced this exact situation while also working without a super clear proposal and contract. 

To avoid scope creep altogether, make sure you are being upfront with your clients about what is included in their written and signed agreement, and what’s not. However, even with a clear contract in place, clients may still ask for a few extra things! So, here’s how to respond to those situations:

  1. Let them know that you would be happy to complete this extra task for them, BUT remind them that it would be outside the original scope of the project.
  2. Share a link to your proposal or contract where they can review the full scope of the services they agreed to.
  3. Give them an estimate of what adding on this extra service would cost and what the next steps would be to officially add that to your workload.
  4. Ask them to confirm whether they want to add the extra service, and if they have any questions.

Even with our clear-cut and thoroughly-communicated agreement and proposal, we still go through this process with new and existing clients! Give it a shot, and feel free to make these steps your own.

Getting comfortable saying no requires practice. 

We’ll be honest, saying no can be stressful. The more prepared you are for these types of situations + the more you practice saying no, the easier it will be to do so confidently!

If you struggle finding the right words to use when having these awkward conversations with clients, we’ve created a whole list of pre-written prompts that you can download for free. These prompts cover all sorts of messy situations: like when a client is late giving their feedback or when they don’t like what you presented… and many more. In addition, we’ve covered lots of painless ways to say no!

Ready to say no so you can say yes to more dream clients? Download my free email prompts below!

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