Film Independent Mon 10.16.2017

This Is How We Do It: The Art of Saying No

Each month in This Is How We Do It writer Cortney Matz mines her own frustrations to explore issues of productivity, coming away with (more or less) helpful thoughts on finishing that pesky screenplay, short film or whatever else may be vexing the artistic mind. Warning: this is not an advice column. 


“No.” It’s a word we all have to say and don’t like to hear. After all, in an industry built on relationships, who can afford to distance anyone? Is it possible to protect your time and maintain a healthy professional network?

As a creative professional, your time is valuable. Chances are you have a project you are committed to completing. But it’s easy to get roped into other roles that won’t help your career or even give you much satisfaction. It happens to all of us. And sometimes it’s really tough to decide whether to say yes or no. And like all of us, you will most likely find yourself delivering more No’s than Yes’s a bit more.

Do you feel guilty for saying no? Or do you first say yes, then kick yourself for killing your productive momentum for the benefit of someone else’s career? This decision-making process is not a science, and we will all make mistakes. Here then is some instruction on how to use those two little letters, N-O, to better protect your time and energy.

In general terms, there are basically three ways to say no. Saying no is not hard—you can totally just say it. But it’s so rare that we do, and for very good reason. The care required in balancing the rejection of well-intended invitations with the acceptance of the people issuing them is paramount. Those refusals can pile up, and people stop asking. Note: this is not about trying to coddle anyone’s unrealistic expectations of you or pretending that everything is alright when it isn’t. I’m a big fan of authenticity. Let’s say what we mean in a way that people can understand it.

No need to be unclear—communicate your “no” with courage, by all means. But, you may find life goes better for you if that isn’t all you communicate.

So, let’s get practical. It’s time to learn The Three Kinds of “No.”


You want to say yes, but can’t afford to follow through.

Work piling up? Unfortunately you might have to say “no” to that great opportunity.

Don’t you hate it when this happens? A perfectly legitimate opportunity to build cred, make cash or simply take on a fun, creative role that your inner artist is jumping up and down about. You would much rather do this than complete the seventh rewrite of your business plan for your 17th investor meeting. But sadly, there isn’t time for both. And after weighing the options, you must be committed to your long-term goal.

So say that. “I would love to take on this project, however…” Show your enthusiasm, but use words that make it clear this will be a refusal. Follow up with an explanation, if it warrants. No need to offer details, but a blanket statement of unavailability will do the trick.

Then, if possible, suggest someone else who could benefit from the opportunity. Referrals are the best way to pay it forward, win brownie points, achieve karma or whatever relational gold stars you’re into. Everybody wins and you’re still the good guy!

Make sure to thank them for thinking of you and wish all (parties involved) well. Now back to that business plan…


You don’t want to say yes, but you like the person asking.

Don’t burn this down!

We all know “the face.” We can feel ourselves making it just as a person we care about starts to propose an idea for a thing we can do for or with them. The face that says, “It pains me to hear you ask this because I’m already saying no.” Our friends and family know the face too, and watching it emerge might even prompt them to begin pleading or switch straight to arguing. Basically, this is going nowhere good.

First, control your face. Stay relaxed and tell yourself this will turn out well. Over email and text, resist the urge to delay your response or start your message with “unfortunately,” (a personal pet peeve of mine, and one I’m assuming others don’t like to see as well.)

Thank them for asking you, then offer an alternative: another time, another project, a request to check in sometime after your deadline. Just make it clear you’re psyched for future prospects. If you’re up for it, you can even create an opportunity for them to get involved in what you’re doing. Hey, you never know, it could work.


You have zero interest in this request or the person making it.

Not interested? Avoid at all costs.

Who knows why we see potential in some connections and instinctively flee others. It can be tough to let go of any connection that seems like it might lead to greater opportunities in your career, but I think it’s best to trust your instincts and save both parties the hassle of becoming engaged in a doomed collaboration.

“Thanks for the courtesy of asking, however I’m not interested.” Don’t create false hope. You do them a disservice by letting them think they have a chance with you when you’re 100 percent uninterested.


Bonus: The “No Thanks” Mad Lib


Dear ______,

I’m so glad you asked me to _____. I really wish I could say yes, but I am fully committed to other projects for the next _____ months. Have you checked with ____? She’s terrific, and I believe she has experience with ____ as well.

Thank you for the request, and if you are still looking to collaborate in 2018, feel free to reach out. Have a GREAT week!

All my best,



A Zero Awkwardness Strategy.

Maybe you noticed a trend in the three scenarios above: each response includes the words “Thank you.” In our creative climb, it’s easy to take for granted the opportunities that come our way, even if we don’t want them. And in a busy industry that can be preoccupied with commercial success at the expense of embracing the inherent value in people, a quick thanks communicates appreciation and professionalism.

So whether you reply “no” or “yes”, say it respectfully and with reason. When you treat someone the way you want to be treated, you can move forward knowing you have done your job right.


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