The enchanting yes; the essential no

yes_manJust over a year ago, I was riding a conference high. You know the kind; that afterglow that comes following a terrific professional development opportunity. In this instance, I had just returned from the 2013 CASE Summit with a head full of ideas and a spirit lifted by thought-provoking sessions and inspiring keynote speeches.

One particularly inspiring keynote was Guy Kawasaki‘s talk on the topic of “enchantment.”

Enchantment is also the title of one of Guy’s recent books, which I purchased to read on the flight home. It’s a great little book. It’s a quick read and one that I ought to re-read on occasion.

But there’s one part of Enchantment, and Guy’s talk, the left me disenchanted — and that is the idea he espouses about making “yes” the default response to requests. “Defaulting to yes” is one of the keys to becoming more likable — and that, according to Kawasaki, opens the door to greater success.

“A yes buys time, enables you to see more options, and builds rapport,” Kawasaki writes in Enchantment. “By contrast, a no response stops everything. There’s no place to go, nothing to build on, and no further options are available.”

There’s some truth to this. And being on that conference high, I decided to default to yes more often in my work and life affairs. I didn’t go so far as Jim Carrey’s character in Yes Man. But I went far enough to cause myself a great degree of discomfort.

Just say ‘no’?

Still, I think there’s something to be said for “no.”

Here’s the thing: I’ve never been much of a “yes” person. And that’s gotten me into trouble more than a few times with internal clients, bosses, my family, my wife (God bless her), what few friends I have and the general public.

But I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea to uncritically say “yes” to every request that comes down the pike. (To his credit, Kawasaki suggests that people like me could default to “not yet” instead of “yes.” So there might be some middle ground.) Saying yes too often will lead to dilution, lack of focus and exhaustion.

In my opinion, it’s important for people in our business to take a critical view when it comes to certain requests for assistance from internal clients.

Our job as marketers within higher ed organizations is twofold: We provide expertise in the areas of branding, marketing, public relations, graphic design, online communication and so forth. But we also serve as internal marketing and communications consultants.

We provide the most value to our organizations when we apply our expertise to a situation — that is, our understanding of the principles of good communication, branding, PR and marketing — and help our clients find the right solutions to their marketing and communications challenges.

Too often, however, clients come to us with their idea of a solution already developed. They want us to execute their ill-formed visions — produce a brochure, write a press release or speech, slap up a website — no questions asked. They prefer we not serve them and the institution by consulting — by helping them bring more clarity to their thoughts about whatever problem they think they need to solve.

After all, our clients aren’t marketing experts. We are. And we owe it to them to offer that expertise — even if they aren’t coming to us for our expertise, but to merely fulfill a request. (For more on this philosophy, see this post from way back in 2009: 3 simple questions for communicators.)

There’s another problem with saying yes too often if you’re a manager. When you commit yourself to “yes,” you’re really committing your team. That’s unfair and forces further trade-offs down the line where the really brilliant, creative work happens — or could happen, if managers would say “yes” to non-essential projects more often.

Essentialist angst

Anyway, I have tried to follow, more or less, Kawasaki’s advice and default to yes during the past year. I’m not sure I’ve been as successful as others who might have more of an inclination toward people-pleasing. But I’ve tried. Really, I have.

And then I started reading this other book: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown.

McKeown is a big fan of the “no.” Not “no for no’s sake,” though. He’s really more of a fan about deciding what is absolutely essential for us to say “yes” to. McKeown believes that saying yes to less is the key to success.

(For more about McKeown’s book, I recommend you read these reviews by Karine Joly — who recommended I read Essentialism — and Donna Talarico, who has also chronicled her struggles with a default-to-yes approach.)

In many ways, McKeown’s approach is a 180 to Kawasaki’s. And for me, it’s more attractive.

Because the business we are in — branding and marketing — should be about saying no more.

We live in a world of clutter and over-communication. Higher ed brands are especially guilty of wanting to communicate every little feature of every degree program. Have you sat in on a university administrator’s PowerPoint presentation lately? Slides are jam-packed with cluttered, disorganized, unfocused information. Presenters and their presentations meander. Brochures runneth over with fatuous verbiage. A good 90 percent of that shit needs to go. (McKeown has a 90 percent rule that is worth thinking about.)

And yet, the world pulls us toward “yes.” Yes to more. Yes to dilution and bloat. Away from clarity and specificity and the essential.

When you say “no” to requests — or ways to do things that are unessential, that don’t add value — you can be seen as uncooperative and disagreeable. You’re not a team player. In fact, you’re more of a team player than those who want to pile on unnecessary, non-essential stuff.

A middle way?

So here’s the conundrum: The enchanting yes vs. the essential no.

It seems to me that the right path is a combination of the two approaches.

First, follow McKeown’s advice and winnow our choices down to only the best options for us. This is where McKeown’s 90 percent rule kicks in. It works something like this:

  • List all of the opportunities for you to say “yes” to something — a project, an event, a purchase, a speaking opportunity, a new social media channel, a short term commitment, long term commitment, whatever. List it all.
  • Score the value of each opportunity to you and your mission on a scale of 0 to 10.
  • Eliminate everything that doesn’t score a 9 or 10.

Then and only then should we apply Kawasaki’s advice to say yes.

This follows a path Michael Fienen discusses in a 2012 .eduGuru post about Pinterest. That post is not really about Pinterest. It’s really a platform for Fienen to preach his mantra to “do less better.” That sums up the point of Essentialism quite well, I think.

It’s my tendency to default to McKeown’s approach. But in a world that continuously demands us to say “yes,” it’s tough to be a no man.


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

7 thoughts on “The enchanting yes; the essential no”

  1. Well said Andy. In the management of IT resources we really want to say yes to everything but need to say No or nothing gets accomplished. I attended a PM session once on how to most appropriately use your No’s. To reinforce their thoughts of this they gave each of us a fake nose and it has stuck with me ever since. Sorry to be nostalgic but the thoughts of this bring me back to the immortal words of Mick “You can’t always get what we want…”. Guess I will just go out and get me a Cherry Red soda.

    1. John – Thanks for sharing. I love the idea of having a fake nose to put on at appropriate times. And of course, the words of the Rolling Stones ring true for many occasions. Enjoy that soda!

  2. Nice thoughts about being able to say no. But the reality of life at my university is dealing with demanding administrators and faculty, lack of support within the departmental structure, and a lack of respect for the marketing and communications function within in the university as a whole (“anyone can do that stuff”). The fact is that there are times when I don’t have one boss or two, I have sixty. And after keeping 58 of them happy on their projects and needs, the other two will almost certainly run to the provost and complain how “PR” just won’t do anything around here. “Do less better?” Nice thought. Maybe I’ll dream about it tonight.

    1. Larry: I hear you. Oh, how I hear you.

      But how does “yes” lead to more support and greater respect for the marketing and communications function? In our business, we seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place quite often: Say “yes” too often to things that aren’t essential to the brand, and you’re seen as being non-strategic and you’re taken advantage of. Say no, and you’re uncooperative.

      There’s gotta be a balance somewhere. I’m still searching for it.

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