The Power of No

For just two letters, this word may be the most powerful one in the English language.  It sets limits.  It defines boundaries. It has the power to stop.  It can discourage.  It causes more fear than any other single word.

It’s easy to assume that No gets used way more than any other word as well.  It’s the word of defiance used early in our lives, to show us boundaries, and anyone who has seen an average two year old, knows that it is one of the first words we master and use with others.

No can motivate.  Once I know the worst someone can say to me is no, and I am prepared for that response,  almost anything becomes possible.  I am free to try, to swing for the fences, because I am already prepared and accept the worst they can throw at me- a simple No.

But surprisingly, we use No sparingly.  We avoid saying No because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so instead, we’ll try to take on that extra favor for a friend, or find extra time we don’t have, or hang up on a solicitor rather than simply and politely saying No Thanks.  We’d rather avoid being honest than pull out that little word, No.

Recently, Chris Penn was asked whether he would post a presentation of his to the web, and he said, “No.”  I have a recording of that presentation, and I am also honoring his “no” and won’t be posting it or my notes to the web.   Why would people very involved in the podcasting community and in sharing, people who host events about group learning decide to say no and withhold information from others?  Chris got a lot of email from people who were upset with him for saying no, for imposing a limit.  Yet my question is “Why do you feel entitled to his presentation and intellectual property for free?”

Chris spoke at the merged “petcha kucha/Battledecks” presentation we had at 8 am on Sunday morning.  As is usual for early morning at most conferences, only the die hards and truly dedicated were there.  Chris gave one of the most useful 5 minute presentations I have ever seen, and felt it was a reward for those who were there, who recorded it, who took notes and were paying attention, and those that did not come, missed out on something special.  And he does not feel obligated to serve those who were not willing to get out of bed or make seeing his presentation a priority.

People were getting upset that he decided he would not share his information out further.  Chris decided to say no, simply and elegantly.  He set a boundary, and people got mad, just like the two year old who’s told it’s bedtime.

My question is this:  If you aren’t willing to attend someone’s session, if you aren’t willing to give him your presence when he speaks, why should he give you his information later on?  What have you done to earn or deserve it?  And why should someone else like me, who may have recorded the session, make that material available to you?

The community doesn’t like the word No.  They will tell you it’s against the very nature of bringing people together to set up limits and boundaries.  But these are the same people who said No to getting up early, to taking in an experience even if it was inconvenient.  The no’s balance out perfectly, and harmony should be restored.

One of the challenges internet communities have is that the all-access pass of communication, 24 x 7, gives an illusion that anything you want should be yours.  And that simply is not true.

Community leaders who have run Podcamps, for example, are beginning to want to see others take over the work that they’ve started.  Yet many people just seem to want events to appear for their convenience, not appreciating the work, the planning, and the long hours and stress that a few people bear for the sake of everyone else.  And the people who have stepped up are getting to the point where they need to say no.  They have other interests.  They have other demands on their time.  They have families who’d like to see them from time to time.

People are having to say no and set limits regarding their time and resources.  I respect this, no matter how much I would rather hear Yes.  We are living in a world where abundance is no longer the rule, and scarcity will start to rule the day.  People are having to make do with less and less.  And we need to seriously consider that there is going to be an increase in quid pro quo- things will no longer be free, but will require an equal exchange, a barter, to make things happen.  This means also being aware of your value proposition, and be willing to say to others that you can’t have it all for free.  It may not cost you money, but it will cost you effort or time to show up and participate, at the very least.

No is powerful.  You need to understand the quid pro quo of your No’s.  If you aren’t showing up at events or sessions, you are saying no, even while you say yes to other things, as simple as investing your time and money elsewhere.  Expecting others to bear the burden and cost of your no’s and provide you what you missed, no questions asked, is no more fair and equitable than asking someone else to pay the tab at a restaurant where you’ve enjoyed the meal.

Opportunity costs.  Yeah.

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21 comments


  1. Mike Lipkin via Mitch Joel:

    I would do this for free, but I make you pay

    so that you understand the

    value

    of what you are getting.

  2. As usual, you cut directly through all the bull shit and tiptoeing and get right to the point. THANK YOU!

    I had no idea that Chris was getting a hard time about this. When I read the post I had two instant thoughts. First was “damn I wish I had been there because I would have loved to see this” and then secondly was “good for him for doing this.”

    As someone who does give away a ton and says yes more then no I completely understand that it isn’t the easiest thing to say no, but it is necessary sometimes.

    I’ve got to digest this more.

  3. This is great, Whitney. I love it. We just assume that everything is free and freely available with the online craze. I love how he said no. I think boundaries help define us and help others to give us a bit more respect. Well done!

  4. I heard about Chris saying no on “Marketing to Coffee” and, while I would love to see his presentation, I can totally understand why he would say no. That is his right, just as it is his right to charge for the same presentation (either to give it, or for someone to download it later) if he wanted to. Which then gives me the right to determine if what he is offering is worth purchasing (or attending).

    My biggest complaint about New Media/Web 2.0/Whatever is that the work that goes into producing content, or creating opinions, or crafting presentations is becoming devalued. It may be cliche – but time is money, and we, as the producers of the content, need to figure out what our time is worth.

    Keep up the great work Whitney, and Christopher!

  5. Wanda McClure

    Thank you for your insight. As someone relatively new to the social media landscape and how to use it effectively, your thoughts provide deep insight for me. As a learner, I want to learn from the best, people like Christopher Penn. As an educator, I understand the value of setting limits on “free”. True ownership of learning is vital to the transfer of knowledge. Kudos to Chris for taking a stand and kudos to you for enlightening us with your insight. “No” can be a good word.

  6. I think it’s important to start defining where our boundaries are. I know Seth Godin writes an excellent blog, for example, but he views his books as a souvenir people buy to have everything in one place on their shelf. I also heard an NPR/PRI story on Marketplace about Amma, a spiritual teacher from India, who gives out free hugs people stand in line over 10 hours to receive. But she has an incredible amount of merchandise sold- t-shirts, tote bags, and food, all run by volunteers as well. (Reminds me of Chris Brogan’s “I can’t eat a hug” presentation- apparently, Amma can, in a metaphorical sense.)

    We pay for stuff that has value for us, and if we don’t place value on our time and our contributions, who will?

  7. You go Chris! And thank you Whitney for this post. Anyone who doesn’t get that someone saying “No” to you is no reason to get angry and fussy, has some serious growing up to do! What kind of upbringing did you have if at this age (I assume these were adults at the presentation) you haven’t grown out of the silly sense of entitlemet you have as a 2 year old? Ridiculous.

  8. A good friend once told me: “Your failure to prepare is not my problem.” Posting the slides would be bearing the responsibility for someone else’s choice and preparation to attend the morning talks.

    The web may run on 24×7 but there’s not a bookmark or another tab for real life experiences.

  9. Well put!

    To me the free-expectation (not just of content but of *everything*, including hard-earned professional expertise) is summed up perfectly here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2a8TRSgzZY

  10. Great post and good for Chris for saying no. Recently on Twitter I had my own tirade against Google for trying to get some designers to contribute to a project for free (exposure). Some designers took a stance and said: no. I gave them kudos as well because too many designers, writers, news outlets, media, etc are expected to give their hard work and creations away for free. Some value (besides the vague and suspect “exposure” offering) needs to come from every creative endeavor (business endeavors and presentations are also creative output). It’s up to the producer to place their own version of “value” onto giving away their stuff. Great post. Thanks.

  11. That is SOOO awesome!

    We have to respect other people and the value of their time and money. As an attorney, I’ve charged hourly rates and those funds cover not only my time, but office overhead, rent, utilities, etc. That’s built into the hourly rate. Somehow, people seem to respect that more than they do for other consultants and contractors. Is this the ultimate problem with the service economy- that no one really values anyone else’s time but their own? Perhaps. I feel another blog post coming on.

  12. Pingback: What Happened To Accountability? | Altitude Branding | Brand Elevation through Social Media

  13. Jeremy Tyrrell

    I get a lot of people trying to convince me of the value of the exposure their business brings mine, in exchange for lower prices or free services. That argument didn’t work well for me when at 21 I tried to convince my local GM dealership to give me fleet pricing on my first car based on the next 20 I might buy over my life time.

    The promise of potential is best realised within – if I don’t understand my own value or the value of my brand, then you probably shouldn’t want any part of it, especially for free.

  14. I agree. I think the problem is that some people in social media have become reluctant entrepreneurs, and they have a hard time gauging what their services are worth, causing some devaluation and people assuming any old geek will do, so to speak. Now that there’s starting to be a level of expertise in the field, I think the valuations will get to be easier.

    That, and business models that actually work for entrepreneurs.

  15. LEMills

    I was at that event when Chris said “No,” and I’d beg to differ with your assessment.

    His “No” was said at the end of his presentation to people who *were* in attendance, who made an effort to be there. “No” was said after he spoke, with no pre-established warning to be sure to take notes, during an event that was up to that point one of camaraderie and conviviality. Most importantly for me, “No” was said with what I can best describe as a smirk.

    Perhaps some may think it clever to answer a simple request so curtly, but I translated it as a rather uncomfortable game of “gotcha.”

    If that’s social media, then so be it, but it certainly is worth noting that “worth” runs in two directions: all that little situation revealed to me was a speaker who held himself much higher than the rest of the people who showed up that morning. Each of them had a story to tell, and each of them deserved far more respect than they got.

    -Linda Mills

  16. Fabulous blog, Whitney. Thank you for writing this inspired piece. I’m bookmarking this and sending the link out to everyone I know!

  17. I do think Chris said it in response to people asking who came in late, but that’s really besides the point.
    The tools that Chris uses are also besides the point- it’s the way he uses them where his talent and skill shine. He essentially took his toolbox out and showed his elegant hammers, chisels, and wrenches, and then put them away again.

    I don’t always see teachers giving their lecture notes to students, and I saw this in a similar light. It’s up to those present to take responsibility for their own learning, and not always depend on the smart kid in class or on a room mate for the notes. And it’s in this vein that I think setting boundaries and saying “no” from time to time may teach a lesson about opportunity costs and responsibility for one’s own learning that can be invaluable as well.

  18. Great post!

    I once gave away MOU templates online. I got a lot of requests to make more specific ones for people. over 10,000 downloads and only 1 thanks.

    I began selling those same templates – 98 sales and 15 ‘Thank You’s

    I wasn’t there Linda, I don’t even know who Chris is. But it comes down to his right to say ‘No’. Why should he have said in the beginning ‘Take Notes cause I’m not gonna give you my presentation’. I’ve Never Ever made that assumption, that I had the right to a presenters presentation.

    Thanks for writing this – I think we may see a bit of a meme cultivate out of this.

  19. Thanks Shawn!

    I understand that drawing lines with what is free and sharable and what is proprietary, especially at a community oriented event is tricky, and leaves some people feeling that if you didn’t want to share, you shouldn’t have presented at all. But in the end, I think your story goes towards proving the point that people generally value what they have to work for, and don’t always value free. I am looking forward to reading Chris Anderson’s new book, Free, for just the reason- to see his take on it.

  20. Whitney, this is a fantastic post. Thank you. No has been one of the hardest things for me, but it needs to be said. I know that I miss opportunities, but something has to give as a professional for client work and family life. Great advice.

  21. whitneyhoffman

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! I'm glad it helped, and rereading it again today helped me remember too, that every opportunity is not always something you have to take- it's about making sure you choose what you want to do, what you do best, and feel free to say no to the rest- maybe refer work along to others, maybe help if you can, but No is often a rational and exceptional answer that will keep us sane.

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