Just Say No! An article by Laura Schwartz
But know how to say it
In 1982, a student asked then First Lady Nancy Reagan what to say when offered drugs. Her answer, “Just Say No,” launched a national anti-drug campaign and movement that is still alive today.
Reagan’s passed on March 6, 2016 but her lessons remind us that a simple message can be a powerful tool. “Just Say No” reenergized the war against drugs, but those same words can be your secret weapon at the office—if you know how to use them effectively.
The words of a former first lady may seem like an unusual place to find business advice, but I’ve found there are many lessons we can learn from the White House. In my keynote series, I highlight leadership moments that happened behind the scenes of the White House from its first inhabitants, John and Abigail Adams, through to the present, and show how these moments are still relevant and relatable to our professional and personal lives today.
In the 1980s Nancy Reagan’s message applied to drugs and alcohol – today, I empower my audiences to “Just Say No” at work. I would never encourage insubordination or slacking off, but we’ve all had those times when we are asked to do something we don’t have time to do, or that’s not really our responsibility. We all know co-workers who try to push their work onto others, and many of us have been faced with client requests that go far beyond reasonable expectations. Saying yes may make you a hero in the short term, but it can have negative implications on your other work, and, over time, can lead to job dissatisfaction.. But when you “Know how to say No” you can be empowered, you can raise your credibility and you can start to balance your life.
While I agree with the former first lady that we should “Just say No,” I do not always agree with those who argue that, “No is a complete sentence.” Saying “no” is enough when it comes to sex, drugs and alcohol, but in the workplace sometimes it requires more. I learned from someone else in the White House, my former boss, President Bill Clinton, that it’s not just “what you’re saying, but why you’re saying it” that counts. Whether you are working on issues of national policy, or engaging in a conversation with like-minded individuals or those who disagree with you, “No.” is not a complete sentence… Not an effective, anyway.
Next time someone asks you to do a report on a topic that isn’t your responsibility, “say no” and then “let them know” why – perhaps it’s because it doesn’t fall within your duties. Then help them understand who actually does handle that specific area, so they won’t be coming back to ask you again a week later.
When you educate, you empower, and you educate though your response, even if that response is “My plate is full and I can’t move this ahead of my other priorities right now,” or “See me in two weeks,” or “No, but you know who is a great resource for that – Jennifer in Marketing.”
I spend my life saying yes and connecting people, and I think it says a lot when you know you are not the right fit and that someone else can be more effective. Be proud to say no…just let the other person know why you’re saying it!
Know how to say no
3 ways to say no to common work scenarios:
- “Great project, but I’m not sure I’m the best fit. Jennifer actually has some really great ideas about this topic. Have you reached out to her?
You say no, but empower them to find the right person who can say yes. You’re credible in your answer because you show you are the person that can connect them with the right person to get it done.
- “Thanks for asking me, I have some ideas to share, but my schedule is full for the next two weeks. Please call me then and we’ll brainstorm.”
There are things we actually want to be involved in, but daily schedules and other priorities at that moment make it difficult. Let colleagues know you are interested and willing to make it work, but only when you have the time to give the project the attention it deserves.
- “That’s outside of my current project responsibilities but I would enjoy the opportunity to set up a time to go through and change it up so my work better meets your needs.”
A great way to tell your manager this is not what you signed up for but if it is a priority let’s take the time together, give it the credence it deserves, realign priorities and get this on the list to show you are ready to take on new challenges.
About Laura Schwartz
Professional Emcee, Keynote Speaker and Author Laura Schwartz knows how to make live events succeed. Whether hosting a corporate event or delivering a keynote on stage, Laura brings the experience and energy to make your message resonate with any audience! Laura was voted by as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the International Events Industry in the Fall of 2019 and 2020 and received the Podcast of the Year Award with her ITV News Podcast 2021.
For more information on or to schedule Laura to speak, please contact Ashley Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-767-7415.