When Does Saying No to a Speaking Engagement Make Sense?

By Jane Atkinson

When I talked to Joe Calloway on the podcast a few weeks ago, I asked him, “If you could go back and talk to yourself 30 years ago when you were first starting out, what advice would you give Young Joe?

He said, “I wish I would have said “no” to more things sooner.”

Isn’t it interesting how our perspective on saying no to a speaking engagement can evolve over time?

In the early days, many speakers take the stance that they “will speak for any audience, anytime, anywhere, and at any fee.” This isn’t the right perspective, though. When you are in front of the wrong audience, you are doing a disservice to your brand.  

If you are able to shift your mindset over to one of service, I think it makes it easier to say ‘no.’ Consider adding this to the conversation: “I want to do what’s best for your audience, so I’d like to recommend someone else for this job.”

A member of our Inner Circle Mastermind, Jeff Tippett, learned this lesson the hard way. He said:

“In my early days, I was afraid to say ’no.’ I wanted to make money, so why would I say ’no’? But I soon learned the same thing that I learned the hard way in my public affairs + communications firm. Saying ’no’ is not only powerful to my brand; it also saves me from problems down the road. If I’m not a good fit for a meeting, I’m going to find out—eventually. I’d much rather acknowledge that at the onset than when I walk off the stage. So, now I get to ’no’ as quickly as possible.”

Jeff figured this out early on, which is what’s led him to book “right fit” speaking engagements at a rapid pace these days! Well done Jeff!

5 Situations When Saying No to a Speaking Engagement Makes Sense

So when might saying no to a speaking engagement be a good idea?  

Here are just a few examples to get you thinking about when you might want to pass.

1. The topic is outside your lane.

A client calls and asks you to deliver a talk on diversity and inclusion. You have skirted this topic in the past during your leadership talks, but it isn’t in your wheelhouse.

Instead of saying yes, you could say, “That’s not the right fit for me, but I know Deb Shaw, a former PepsiCo executive who will do a fabulous job for you – it’s her specialty.”

You become the hero to that decision-maker, perhaps Deb cuts you a finder’s fee of 10%, and you avoid having to deliver a presentation that is outside your expertise.

We have to be fearless about saying no.  Taking fear off the table is the fastest way to get you to your goal of booking business that will be good for you, good for your brand, and good for the client.

(Side note: When I search through the various speaker directories on eSpeakers or at nsaspeaker.org, I see people who have listed leadership as their topic who I know are not leadership experts. That then waters down the search and makes the search engine less valuable for people who want true experts on a topic. So when you are checking boxes in your profile, don’t let fear drive the bus. Be discerning and stay in your lane! That will reduce the number of wrong fit events coming your way.)

2. It is the wrong audience. 

It is the wrong audience

A client calls and asks if you could deliver a talk for their front line managers in their manufacturing plant. Your topic is leadership, but your sweet spot is in the C-Suite, and blue-collar isn’t a great fit for you.  

Instead of saying yes, you could say, “If you are doing anything for your senior executives, let me know. This is sometimes a top-down problem. As for speaking to your front line managers, I’d like to recommend Greg Schinkel’s company – that’s the work they specialize in.”

3. The fee is too low.

It’s early fall, and a client calls and asks if you are free on May 17th. Yes, the date is open. The engagement is in Florida, and you live in California. Your fee is $10,000 for out of state engagements, but the client’s budget is $3,500.  

If you say “yes” to this event, aside from doing your brand a disservice (which you are), you are also agreeing to sell a piece of inventory a full 9 months ahead of time. Which means that several times over, you may have to pass on a full-fee event on that date (perhaps even one that’s in California). Plus, I can almost guarantee that you are going to be kicking yourself when you are flying all the way across the country to play this date for $3,500.

Even if the client is a big Fortune 100 brand that you really, really want to work with, keep that Dr. Phil saying in mind: “You teach people how to treat you.” Let’s just hope that they circle back another time with a better budget when you’ve handled your “no” graciously. 

You can handle the situation by saying something like this: “Thank you so much for thinking of me. I’m sorry we’re so far apart on price this time, but I do hope you’ll keep me in mind for future events with bigger budgets. Let me know if you’d like an introduction to someone who is at the right fee level for this event; I have someone terrific in mind.”

4. The offer comes from a client who micromanages. 

One of our Sprint Mastermind students, Jason Jones, posted a question about a client who was micromanaging their entire presentation. The client went line by line through their comprehensive outline and told him he had to drop all stories (because they wouldn’t work with her audience) and to remove a bunch of slides. He had a lot of experience with these types of audiences and knew what worked, yet she wanted him to change his entire speech!  

There’s a strategy for this, which starts with a great leading question: “Why did you hire me?” And then gently asking that you be allowed to do your job.  

It’s very likely that in the future, Jason will be willing to walk away from a client like this. No doubt many of our readers have experienced this too. It’s very difficult to navigate a controlling client, but perhaps this is a time to just say “no!” 

5. You have a tight calendar.

tight calendar

This is a lesson that a few of my clients learned the hard way this past winter.  

Judi had booked back-to-back engagements and was trying to get from one side of the country to another on time for her third speech of the week. Her flight got canceled due to weather, which created 24 hours of stress and mayhem, but ended with Judi walking on the stage and knocking their socks off (perhaps with a few new grey hairs created by the frenzy of the situation).

The lesson is that when the calendar is just too tight, sometimes you have to say “no.” Often when that happens, if the client can manage it, they will rework the schedule to make it work. Fortunately for Judi, she was in communication with the client from the get-go, and when the client juggled the schedule last minute, that even bought Judi enough time for a shower after her red-eye ordeal.

Sometimes when the client cannot change the schedule, we just have to say “no.” Saying “yes” at any cost often ends up being too big of a price to pay.

If you’re just starting out in your speaking business, keep these ideas in mind, and pull them out when useful. Saying no to a speaking engagement may feel awkward at first, but it is a skill you must learn. We all know that our first year is typically a year of finding out what works and what doesn’t. If you have these ideas in your back pocket, it might save you from a tough lesson later on.

See you soon Wealthy Speakers!