For many of us, the word “no” is the hardest to say. Sure, it might only have two letters and one syllable, and it might be as ubiquitous—and maybe seem as innocuous—as its archrival, “yes.” But there’s more to a word than simply saying it. After all, “no” can breed a fear of missing out or hurting someone close that needs our help. We might worry that same word might mar a friendship, inconvenience a stranger or stunt our career. Thinking more in the long term, “no” has the potential to change the trajectory of our lives, or even the course of history.
But what if we said no more often? Actress Amy Poehler wants to help people do just that.
In a new campaign for Pepsi’s Pure Leaf iced tea, Poehler reads and reimagines several classic fairy tales to show what might have happened if Rapunzel hadn’t let down her hair, if Gretel didn’t follow Hansel into the woods, or if the princess didn’t actually want to sleep on a tower of mattresses to prove whether or not she could feel the pea beneath and thus secure her status as a “real” princess.
In an exclusive interview with Forbes about the campaign, Poehler pointed out that “when you really take a look at fairy tales, they’re usually pretty violent,” adding that “they’re violent and the women don’t fare so well.”
“It was really fun to turn them on their head,” Poehler said. “Because comedically, so many of those stories would go the other way if one character just went, ‘Well, wait a minute—I’m going to trust my gut here and not going to go into that forest or pull back the covers or let my hair down. You know? If there was just one minute where men and women trusted their instincts and were comfortable just saying no, things would have gone a lot differently. More people would have lived.”
The morals of each story aren’t just limited to fiction: They’re also just as relevant to real life—far away from castles and witches and closer to our own homes and offices.
The series, “Once Upon a No,” is part of a broader campaign directed by fellow actress-director Rashida Jones, which aims to free people to say no more often. (It also, of course, pitches Pure Leaf’s tea that has no artificial colors or sweeteners.)
Poehler joked that while she wrote a book called Yes, Please, she does indeed love the word “no.”
“It’s really fun to take these classic stories and turn right rather than turn left on them,” she said. “And I do think in general, big picture, what men and women need to hear often is that you don’t have to do it all. Where you’re at is a good place to be and just kind of the search for the next biggest thing can be a lifelong foray and discovery.”
Saying no does seem to be a collective dilemma. According to research conducted by Pepsi and Pure Leaf, nearly 70% of the 2,600 men and women surveyed felt at least some pressure in their professional lives. However, while just a third of men said they felt hindered from saying no to duties at work, the pressure is even higher for women: half of women surveyed said they have a hard time saying no in the office. (The survey also found that 85% of women agreed that saying yes to too much hurts their quality of life and 86% felt that being allowed to say no to more would be “liberating.”)
According to Katrina McDonald, senior director of partnerships for Pepsi’s Lipton brands, Pure Leaf’s marketing team wants to do more than sell tea. She added that because Poehler has a family and a full-time career, hearing from her on how to say no makes it “very relatable.”
“Her humor is so fun and dry and so approachable,” McDonald said. “What could be a serious message, she brings a humor to it and almost normalizes ‘no.’ That’s really what we’re trying to accomplish here.”
For Poehler, the philosophy of saying no is personal. In fact, she said she often makes it a habit of giving a blanket “no” to everything up front before revisiting decisions to see if missing something really would bum her out.
“And when you do that, it’s usually not a lot,” she said. “Just usually one or two people or one or two things that you feel like, ‘I would miss that if I didn’t attend it.’ ”
But what about the opposite? Has there ever been a time where she’s not been able to change a “no” to a “yes”?
“Sometimes when you’re directing, you have to make really fast creative decisions,” she said. “And what’s good about the word ‘no’ is it’s a complete sentence. Right? Someone can say, Should we use this color paint? and you say no. But sometimes, creatively, no can kind of stop the flow of being creative.”
Having come from the world of improv comedy, Poehler is used to the phrase—and philosophy—known as “yes, and.” In improv circles, the idea of “yes, and” is that an actor is always acknowledging what’s happening in an existing scene before adding something to it. She said improv has taught her a way of saying yes and no at same time, adding that “improv is basically just the reluctant yes.”
In a way, Poehler said, actors onstage have to learn to say both yes and no—just like we all do in the rest of our lives.
“If someone’s like, ‘Hey, let’s jump off this cliff,’ and then you say, ‘Okay, but I’m nervous that we have to jump off this cliff,’ but in life, for the most part, good boundaries and a good sense of what you have the bandwidth for makes you a good creative partner.”
One of the things Poehler liked about the campaign was thinking about how the idea of saying no can look different all the time. For example, she said it might be, “No, that won’t work,” but it can also be a way of buying time to think about something a little longer.
“I think most people want to feel like you’re being honest with them,” she said. “Because your self-worth does not depend on how much you do for people—it shouldn’t. It should depend on the way you act with people and treat them, and sometimes people can feel lousy when you say yes to them all the time, weirdly. They can feel like they’re not special or you’re not paying attention to what they’re asking. So sometimes, weirdly, hearing a no means you’re the kind of person who can handle a no.”
Sometimes it’s easy to practice by saying no to people we don’t know well. Poehler said that’s part of the fun of the Pure Leaf campaign: just thinking about what saying no could be like. But in real life, that might mean saying no to somebody on a call or at the store before getting in a situation with someone a lot closer.
“It’s a constant struggle for most people to figure out,’’ she said. “And it’s a lifelong struggle to figure out who am I, what do I want, and how do I say what I want. That feels like that just goes on your entire life.”