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Working in the arts results in constant demands on our time and energy. When you have a specific skill, whether it’s graphic design or theatre production, there seems to be an expectation that you can’t wait to share your talents with the world… for free.
‘Writers get asked to do a lot for free – sit on panels, give author talks at schools and libraries, judge competitions or look at people’s manuscripts,’ said Sarah Vincent, author and membership officer at Writers Victoria. ‘As authors we are trying to build a profile and an audience for our work, [which is] even more important now that publishing houses have smaller and smaller marketing and publicity teams and are calling on authors to do more of the legwork of promoting their own books. So saying yes or no relates to the opportunity being offered.’
On a day-to-day level, it pays to stay focussed. When you allow every request to divert your attention from your most important activities of the day, everyone ends up frustrated. Managing your time well often involves saying no to perpetual last-minute requests.
Once you reach a certain level of expertise in the arts, the requests come thick and fast. Emerging artists, unpublished authors and arts workers looking to get a leg up in a volatile industry will be asking for help. And while you may have the time and resources to say yes to every request, most people are time poor and struggle with maintaining a balance between being fulfilled and productive at work.
'A good friend of mine frequently describes "no" as the second best thing that you can hear,’ said Lisa Slade, assistant director at the Art Gallery of South Australia. ‘Clearly it’s second best to hearing "yes" but at least you know where you stand when someone says no and you can move on. More often than not, "no" is much better than a maybe and it’s always better than no reply at all. I keep this in mind when negotiating with artists, other curators and gallerists and it helps enormously!'
Read: How to say no when asked to work for free
Don’t try to lie your way out of it. Saying that you have too much on your plate or don’t have time will seem disingenuous if you are then seen taking on other work from other people. And a firm no is better than a maybe. There is a temptation to soften the no to get a better response. But when your no is reluctant, flexible, and malleable, it gives the impression of ‘maybe I’ll change my mind,’ and it encourages your counterpart to keep pushing.
Even if you are sure that you are going to say no as soon as someone opens their mouth, hear them out. Listening to and understanding what another person needs is important, and will go further than a blunt no. If they feel heard, even when you’ve said no, then they will be more likely to come to you when they have another request that might be right up your alley.
Saying no means saying yes
When you are feeling bad about rejecting other people’s requests, remember that saying no means saying yes to other things in your life. If you don’t set firm boundaries around your time and your energy, then it is easy for other people’s demands to dominate your time, leaving very little for yourself and your own goals.
‘I recently said yes to an author talk as part of the book club at a Dymocks store (good for sales and my relationship with the store) and said no to being interviewed about my book for a new blog about books by a stranger whose blog was chaotic and didn’t have many followers,’ said Vincent. ‘It’s all about work/life balance and also about having time to write; I can’t pay my bills or work on my next book if I am forever doing free stuff.’
Think about what’s important
Having overarching goals and values can make it easier to say no. For example, if spending time with your family is important to you, then it will be easier to say no to work that will keep you from your children. If writing a novel is your main goal, then saying no to helping a friend with a copywriting project will be simple. Consider what will contribute to your long-term happiness and career, rather than right now.
Say ‘I don’t’ rather than ‘I can’t’
While saying ‘I can’t’ is usually a more realistic response, having firm rules around what you do or don’t do can also make it easier to filter out unwanted requests. Working in the arts often involves a lot of working for free, especially in the early years of a career. If you don’t work for free, then it’s easy to say no to the millions of ‘work for exposure’ requests that creatives seem to get.
Other rules you set might be saying no to functions on work nights, no working for family, or no working with groups which don’t adhere to your ethics. Saying, ‘sorry, but I don’t work for free,’ can also help people realise that creative work is valuable and ‘exposure’ doesn’t pay the bills.
Delegate until later
Sometimes a dream project falls into your lap and you simply don’t have the capability to do it. In this case, it can be helpful to say something like, ‘I would love to be involved, but have a lot on my plate at the moment. I’ll have more time in XX months, so if you would still like my input then please get in touch then.’ Depending on the request, they might be willing to wait.
Adjust the task
Even if you can’t complete a request, there might be other things you can do. ‘My first book came out in February and in April I was tracked down by someone I hadn’t seen for 25 years asking if I could help their father get his book published (seriously). I said yes to helping the old friend’s father but put boundaries around it that I would give his dad some advice but wouldn’t read the manuscript,' said Vincent.
Tailor your no
You might need to adjust your ‘no’ depending on who’s asking. While a blunter response might be suitable for someone badgering you to work for free, saying no to a boss or employer requires a bit more tact. A flat, 'No, I’m too busy' is not likely to go down well. Instead, try, ‘Thank you so much for thinking of me for this, but I was planning to spend this week working on [name of other projects]'. If your boss knows this new task is more important, it invites her to say, 'Let’s push those other projects to the backburner,' and makes sure you’re on the same page as far as priorities go.
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