Why Creativity Is Your Best Negotiation Tactic

Here’s how creative people can conquer the dread of negotiating–and finally get paid what they’re worth

Why Creativity Is Your Best Negotiation Tactic
[Image: Flickr user Zaheer Mohiuddin]

Ted Leonhardt always got the jitters before a big client meeting. It didn’t matter that he ran a design firm with big name clients like Boeing and Charles Schwab, raking in $10 million a year in fee revenue. Closing a deal with a new client always brought up those same feelings of insecurity.


Leonhardt would duck into the men’s room before a meeting, lock himself in a stall, and jot down a list on a scrap of paper–projects he’d done successfully, awards his company won, other accomplishments. “I would make two to three lists a week and they were always the same,” he says. “I never needed to read them, but making the list, and putting it in my coat pocket made me feel okay about whatever it was that was stressful.”

And it gave Leonhard the confidence to tackle what so many creative professionals dread doing: negotiating.

Today he’s made teaching creative people how to be better negotiators his main focus, writing a book, consulting, and offering a new online course focused on the topic.


“For about 10 years I’ve been consulting with creative firms and over and over I would find people who are sophisticated professionals running firms with 50 to 100 people [who are] terrible negotiators,” he says.

Why is that? Leonhardt draws inspiration from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal book Flow, which identifies 10 contradictory traits creative people tend to possess.

Essentially, the same qualities that make creative people great at coming up with new ideas turn them into lousy negotiators.

A common weakness of creative people is impostor syndrome–that nagging voice telling you that you’re just a big fake, no matter how successful you are.

Creative work requires a healthy measure of sensitivity. You want your work to move people, which means being in-tune with their emotions. But at the negotiating table, this same sensitivity can backfire for creative people. “They are too sensitive. They don’t want to bicker over the price. They just want to get over it and get to the work,” says Leonhardt. “Learning to ask for what you need is really important and it’s hard to do.”


Still, it can and must be done. Over the years of first tackling his own struggles with negotiation, then working with creative clients on beefing up their own skills, Leonhardt has come away with some important tactics for not only dealing with the dread of negotiation, but being stellar at it.

1. Remind yourself you’re worth it

Sneaking into a bathroom stall to jot down your accomplishments, re-reading testimonials from clients, rattling off your accomplishments in the shower–whatever you can do, giving yourself that small reminder that you’re worth it will go a long way. Coming to the negotiating table with confidence is key, but it starts with believing in yourself.

2. Rehearse your lines

Of course, you don’t want to sound rote when you speak, but running through what you want to say aloud and in front of others, will help you feel more confident. When Leonhardt ran his design firm, he would get his team to go over their lines for a presentation in advance. “Walking through the words would reduce everyone’s anxieties including mine,” he said.

3. Know your facts

What’s the range for how much a person in your role gets paid in your city? This information is available online with just a little bit of digging around. When you’re armed with the facts, you can feel confident about the numbers. “Once you know what the range is, you can always assume your opposite knows as well,” says Leonhardt. “Ask for a little more than the top of the range and feel fine about that.”


Feel fine about it! How? Reread No. 1 above.

4. Don’t haggle. Inspire

Creative people love their work. The work is the most important thing. We get it. But while your work can feel very personal, that shouldn’t make negotiating about it feel wrong. And it doesn’t have to feel like haggling either. In fact, the most important tactic you can take when it comes to negotiating is using your creativity to inspire potential clients.

That means coming to the table ready to show how your ideas are exactly what your client needs. It means asking lots of questions about what they want and need and inspiring them with your vision of how you’ll get there.

“Make sure they understand what you are going to do for them,” says Leonhardt. “Do that by inspiring them, not by adding up columns of numbers.”

About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction