You’re a week from the event. The caterer wants to change the menu. Sponsors are requesting data that will take hours to pull. And your boss wants you to pitch the theme for your next event — today.
You need to learn the art of saying no — whether to chaotic vendors, over-eager attendees, or your own staff. Giving in to every request can end up with you stretched too thin, making careless errors, or burning yourself out.
If you have trouble saying no, you have to practice getting that powerful two-letter word out of your mouth. To master the art, start by recognising situations in which you’d be better served by bowing out. Then, try out some techniques for saying no politely without putting your working relationships in jeopardy.
Know when to say no
You can’t say no to every opportunity that comes your way. But how do you know which asks are too much — and which you might kick yourself for turning down? Here are some situations that warrant a resounding “no.”
If you’re feeling burnt out. The weeks and days leading up to a big, important event can certainly be stressful. You might be working longer hours and taking on more responsibility. But overdoing it will only end up sabotaging your success.
If you’re at the point where you’re losing sleep, not seeing your family, and living on protein bars, you have to just say no. If a vendor wants to call you after hours, for example, you can say, “No, I’m not available, but we can talk tomorrow.”
If the work results are suffering. You might thrive on the excitement of putting on an event and enjoying pleasing others. But if you have too much on your mind, you’ll easily miss a spelling error in a marketing email, miscalculate your budget — or much worse. These are signs that you need to say no so that you can focus on the tasks at hand.
Right before an event. If you’ve done good planning prior to an event, everyone should have a to-do list and a protocol to follow. Make it clear to your staff that you will not be available to deal with issues that do not directly pertain to the success of the event.
Immediately following an event. Although you might feel obligated to make yourself available once an event is over, give yourself permission to say no in the day — or week — right after. That way you can recharge before you jump into your next project.
Ways to say no politely
Now that you know when you need to say no, it’s time to practice saying the words. Saying no without ruffling feathers, lowering staff morale, or upsetting vendors takes finesse.
You don’t ever want to come across as not caring or as if you’re averse to doing your job. On the contrary, if you frame your no the right way, people will come to respect the job you’re doing and value your time. Try these techniques.
Start with a thank you. Whenever someone asks you to do something that’s beyond the scope of your job, thank the person for thinking of you before saying no. This shows that you viewed their request as an opportunity to help, not as a nuisance.
Define your limits. Draw a line in the sand in advance so that when you say no, you can refer back to it. It could be setting a specific time that you sign off from work, or having a backup team that you can delegate to when you’re exhausted.
Another idea is to share your work calendar with staff, or send out an email if you’re going to be booked for the next couple of days. By communicating your availability in advance, saying no becomes easier when someone tries to test those boundaries.
Get more details. In the past, you might have said yes without realising the full scope of the request. Always find out what’s entailed, and overestimate how long it will take you before you agree to something. If you realise there is no room in your daily schedule at that point, asking for more information will have shown that you gave it careful consideration.
Be decisive. If you want to say no, don’t sugarcoat it with “I’ll see what I can do” or “I’m not sure.” You also shouldn’t feel the need to apologise. Simply state, “I’m going to have to say no because I’m bogged down in XYZ.”
Offer an alternative solution. Want to say no but still be the hero? As an event manager, you might have access to other resources that can help your vendor or partner. Or you can say that the answer is no for now, but that you’re willing to revisit the request after a more pressing deadline has passed.
By learning to say no, you can focus on what matters to create the best events and build your career. Looking for other ways to maximise your time? Don’t miss the Event Organiser’s Guide to Productivity.