Entrepreneurs and business teams will often strive to create a “Minimum Viable Product” (or MVP) in order to assess whether their idea is worthy of continued effort and refinement. The problems arise when a project appears complicated and multi-faceted in a way that prevents the timely creation of the MVP.

What I particularly enjoy about leading business teams through my songwriting workshops is that, in a similar way, these executives and/or entrepreneurs are faced with the complicated and multi-faceted problem of writing a song with little or no songwriting experience. I’ve found that there are a few critical elements in my workshops that make the achievement of the MVP – in our case, writing the verse and chorus of a song – efficient and timely. I thought I’d take a moment to show how writing a song is analogous to – and great training for – creating an MVP.

Break Down the Problem
One of the best ways to work efficiently is to break down big problems into their component parts. Instead of simply telling a roomful of stunned executives that they’re going to write a song and leaving them to it, I take a few minutes at the beginning to explain that songs – like any complicated problem – are made up of metaphors, verses and choruses. Then, after I demonstrate to the teams how each of those elements work with both descriptions and musical examples, they are much better able to dig in and write their own songs even though mere minutes before they’d never done it.

Use Expert Guidance
While it would be great if everyone in the world were good at everything, that’s simply not realistic. Instead of putting pressure on ourselves to know every part of the issues we’re confronting, it’s often better to allow an expert to guide the process so that we can bring our intelligence to bear effort in more efficient ways. By acting as a metaphorical guardrail for my songwriting business teams, I’m there to provide timely information and to make sure they’re making progress without going too far afield.

Enforce A Time Limit
As obvious as it sounds, sometimes arriving at a solution more quickly simply requires working more quickly. Given that my workshops are between sixty to ninety minutes, my teams don’t have the luxury of taking their work home or thinking about things for several days or even hours. The time limit requires everyone to think and act quickly which has the unexpected benefit of preventing overthinking. It’s been my experience that with bright, motivated people, their first instincts are often more on target than they think. And, of course, remembering that we’re going for a “minimum viable product” and not a GRAMMY-winning song – although you never know – helps, too.

The MVP
All of this to say, I’m convinced that taking teams through the process of writing a song during one of my workshops is a metaphor – and great training – for getting to an MVP in a timely and efficient way. Taking moderately overwhelmed non-musicians who have never written a song from zero to finished song in ninety minutes is not only great fun but should also serve as a reminder that we’re all capable of great work even in new and unfamiliar territory.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

In my last post, I walked you through the verse writing process which is – for the most part –  all about storytelling. So, if in the verse you’re telling your listeners a story, your chorus is all about telling those same listeners why they should care about the story you just told them. 

The Chorus Is The Main Message of Your Song

Think of your chorus as the main message of your song. It’s the deceptively simple summary of what you’ve been leading up to in your verse. Choruses are simple but NOT subtle. The analogy I like to use is that the chorus is where you tie your song’s message to the end of a baseball bat and beat people with it.

A Chorus Uses A Hook

The way choruses get your listeners’ attention is through the use of a songwriting device called a hook. A hook is the catchiest, most memorable part of the chorus lyric that, figuratively, “hooks” your listeners’ interest and stays with them. You can also repeat your hook multiple times in the chorus for extra emphasis. And, often, your song’s hook also works best as the song’s title. Think of the Temptations hit, “My Girl,” for a classic example.  

Sample Chorus

As I mentioned in my previous post on verse writing, I worked with a  group of airline executives to help them figure out how to coordinate their disparate teams across the country. We chose the metaphor of birds flying south for the winter to communicate that message and I’ll include the verse again from the previous post.

     Unless you’re the first bird flying south, the view won’t ever change

     But heading away from the winter gray is more than just a game

     It’s part of our survival, it’s what we’re meant to do

     And you know you can count on me like I can count on you

And, now, the chorus…

     If you’ve got my front, I’ve got your back

     I may not know what’s coming but I’m sure we’re right on track

     And you don’t have to turn around, I’ll take good care of that

     Cause, Baby, if you’ve got my front, you know I’ve got your back

In the chorus lyric above, the main message of our song is about coordinating disparate teams. By describing a situation where a team works together to ensure their survival, we hammer home the main message. We also chose to start and end the chorus with the hook, “I’ve got your back” which also became the title of the song.

What I love about choruses is that the better you get at writing them, the more developed your ability to communicate in a concise, distilled manner becomes. And given that clear, impactful communication is essential for not only innovation but also for just about any endeavor, you’d be well-served to work on your chorus writing skills.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

One of the things I’ve noticed in my corporate songwriting workshops for business teams is that the moment I start to break down songwriting into its component parts, everyone starts to relax. Up until that moment, songwriting seems like a magic trick but when I give intelligent people the guidelines, they’re pretty much off to the races. To that end, I thought I’d take a moment to offer a few tips for effective verse writing.

Remember That Verse Writing Is Storytelling

I’ll begin by simply stating that the verses of your song are designed to tell a story. And since songs are very short stories – like postcard short – you need to pack the maximum amount of meaning into the minimum amount of words.

Use Details & Imagery

The more you can use concrete details and imagery in your verse lyric, the greater the chance you’ll not only capture your listeners’ attention but also communicate your intended message. The expression “a picture is worth a thousand words” is never truer than when you’re writing the verses of a song. Another expression we use in songwriting is “show ‘em, don’t tell ‘em.” In other words, instead of telling someone about a situation, use imagery to do the same thing in a more impactful way. The example I was given when I was learning to write songs was instead of writing in your verse lyric that a woman is evil but still attractive (telling ‘em) you should simply write that she’s a “black heart in a green dress” (showing ‘em).

Distill Your Communication

Given how few lines you have to tell a story in your verses, you’ll want to be sure that each line of your verse provides new information. It’s a common mistake to write essentially the same thing from line to line just using different words. Make sure you’re moving your story forward at all times.

Write Like People Actually Speak

There is a tendency when writing lyrics to make them sound a little more poetic since it’s “writing” after all. However, your listeners will respond better if the lyric sounds (remember songs are sung) like people actually speak and not too stilted. In a similar vein, make sure that you emphasize the natural syllables in your chosen words. As I was taught early on in my career, don’t put the em – pha – sis on the wrong syl – la – ble.

Sample Verse

In one of my workshops, I was helping a team of airline executives figure out how to coordinate their disparate teams across the country. We chose the metaphor of birds flying south for the winter to communicate that message and below is our verse.

     Unless you’re the first bird flying south, the view won’t ever change

     But heading away from the winter gray is more than just a game

     It’s part of our survival, it’s what we’re meant to do

     And you know you can count on me like I can count on you

As suggested in the tips above, we used images like birds, flying south and winter gray to tell the story in a visual way. We also made sure to move our story forward from line to line and took the time to be certain that it felt plainspoken enough to be natural sounding.

Stay tuned for the next blog post where I’ll provide a few tips on chorus writing.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

Good Songs…

A number of years ago a hit-songwriter friend of mine in Nashville was dating a woman who worked as an executive for a large bank. Early on in their relationship, she had asked him what he did for a living and he explained to her that he was a songwriter.

She seemed to take that in stride until it became clear that their relationship was getting serious and then things came to a head. To make a long story short, she was starting to doubt whether a “songwriter” could live as well as my friend did.

One evening after dinner at his spectacular log cabin in the woods outside of town, she said to him, “OK, what do you really do for a living.” Her fear – as she told me later – was that he must have been doing something illegal to be as financially successful as he was.

A man of few – but precise – words, my friend said, “I told you. I write songs.”

She replied, “But…” and then waved her hand around to encompass the sweep of his breathtakingly beautiful home.

“I write good songs,” he said.

Wishing you consistently strong innovations and good songs.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

How to make a metaphor
If you’re uncertain how to make the leap from concept to metaphor, follow the steps below.

1. Identify your concept, idea or issue
Your concept will generally be broader and less “sexy.”

Here are a few examples:
Increased productivity
Team coordination
Learning how to write songs

2. Identify ways to represent your concept with more sensory language
As an example, I’m going to use “learning how to write songs” as the concept to be converted into a metaphor.

3. Make your metaphor
The best way to explore metaphors for a given concept is to ask yourself the question, “what is an example of” and then plug in your concept.

So, in this instance, you would ask yourself, “what is an example of learning how to write songs?” Another way to put this is to think to yourself “what is (put concept here) like?” So, what is learning how to write songs like?

If you can answer that question with “(your concept) is like (your chosen metaphor)” and it feels good, you’ve got a solid metaphor. In this case, I’ve put several examples of what learning how to write songs is like below.

Metaphors for “learning how to write songs”
1. Learning how to write songs is like building a house
2. Learning how to write songs is like reciting a magic spell
3. Learning how to write songs is like learning how to fly

Now you try. Write out three MORE metaphors for “learning how to write songs.”
1. Learning how to write songs is like ___
2. Learning how to write songs is like ___
3. Learning how to write songs is like ___

4. Write out – as part of a brainstorming session – any words, phrases, visuals that come to mind once you’ve chosen your metaphor.

I’d highly recommend taking the time to write out anything that comes to mind when you think about your chosen metaphor. Brainstorming in this fashion is a great way to support your newfound approach to representing your original concept in metaphor form. The more related sensory words, phrases or ideas you can gather, the easier it will be to immerse yourself in this alternate way of thinking about your original idea.

Brainstorming Example:
Since I’ve decided to use “learning how to fly” as my metaphor, I’ve put down some words, phrases and ideas below that relate to flying.

• jumping
• air
• wind
• wings
• trees
• climbing
• trust
• jumping
• flying is exhilarating
• flying feels good

The moment you decide to represent your concept as a metaphor, you’ve begun the transformation from simply identifying it to exploring its depth and breadth in a creative way. Your metaphor can be serious or funny but the key is that you’re choosing a metaphor that will allow you to look at your chosen concept in a new light with more emotion-rich language and imagery. Also, know that there are almost certainly dozens if not hundreds of metaphors for any given concept.

Good luck!

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

After writing over a thousand songs, I’d be lying if I told you I could remember the writing of each of them but I can certainly remember what it felt like to write my first one. I was completely transported. I’d put something brand new into the world. Not only that but I’d found a way to take what was important to me and translate it into a medium that would connect with others on a deep emotional level. All of a sudden, I had a way to process my feelings, thoughts and ideas in a new and incredibly powerful language that people actually wanted to hear. I was hooked.

Of course, I’ve had thirty years to think about the power of songwriting to spark innovation and you might be thinking about it for almost the first time as you read this post.

To give you a hand, let me take a moment to explain how songs – and songwriting – are not a luxury but a fundamental necessity to all life on earth.

From religious hymns written in Sumeria over three thousand years ago to the songs, quite literally, of birds and whales, songs are one of the very oldest means of creating meaningful and memorable communication. It is these qualities among the others that will make developing your ability to write songs an essential arrow in your innovative quiver.

Over the past several years, it has been my pleasure – and privilege – to guide hundreds of executives through my songwriting workshops. My favorite part, without a doubt, is showing people who are not conditioned to thinking of themselves as creative that they are absolutely, positively capable of innovating and that all they’ve been missing are the proper tools.

Often when I’m discussing my workshop in advance with my corporate clients, I’m asked what happens if one – or more – of the teams involved isn’t able to write a song. I’ll tell you what I tell them. Songwriting is simply a matter of giving already intelligent people the tools they need to enhance their innovation skill set. Every team writes a song. Every time.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

“A good haiku rescues a moment in time”
-Billy Collins

These days, I’m constantly in search of ways to stay connected to my creative process in spite of starting each morning with the standard full plate of “to dos.” That being said, I have to believe that I’m not alone in worrying that my productivity comes at the expense of my creativity. And to that end, Ladies and Gentlemen, I offer you the small but mighty haiku.

By definition, a haiku is “a short form of poetry originally from Japan consisting of three phrases in a 5,7,5 syllable pattern.”

What I love about starting each morning by writing a haiku is that I’m tapping into my innate creativity just enough to set the tone for the rest of the day. The simple act of reminding myself that I’m creative is all I need to get through without feeling like I’m just another worker bee doing the same dry tasks over and over again.

Haikus are also great because they don’t have to rhyme. As a result, you can write about pretty much anything without feeling restricted by making sure your words rhyme at the expense of a more interesting meaning.

Here’s an example of one of my favorite haikus written years ago by a friend of a friend:

Green peppers are mean
The come on seedy and tough
But are lacking guts

There’s something whimsical and yet truly thoughtful about this particular poem and haikus in general.

If you’re one of the many people who has been told – or tell yourself – that you’re not creative, I’d challenge you to try writing a haiku tomorrow morning. Between coming up with the idea and the time it takes to use the fingers on both hands to count syllables, I’m guessing you’d be looking at five minutes of inspired effort tops. When it comes to creative bang for your buck, it doesn’t get much better than that.

In order to help inspire people to be more creative, I post an instagram story every weekday with a new haiku to start your mornings off right. Come take a look! Also, if you’re feeling brave, why not post your haiku in the comments section of this post.

In closing, here’s one of mine:

Scared to write your thoughts
What’s the worst that could happen?
You’re already done

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

This post is an excerpt from my book, The Reason for the Rhymes: Mastering the Seven Essential Skills of Innovation by Learning to Write Songs

“The leader of this team has been skeptical all day, they’re pretty much afraid of him and they do whatever he says. Oh, and before this job he was a prison warden for almost twenty years.”

That was the last thing my liaison said to me before she introduced me and I walked up on stage in front of a team of senior executives at a Fortune 500 company who had no idea I was about to ask them to write a song.

As I explained to the team who I was and why I was there, I kept an eye on the faces in the crowd. Generally, when I tell a group of business people that I’m going to get them to write a song, I get a mixture of responses from nervous laughter to disbelief to confusion but the team leader – let’s call him “the warden” from now on – could have been playing high stakes poker for his lack of facial cues.

I spoke for about twenty minutes laying out the ground rules but no matter what I said, the warden remained stone-faced. I’ll admit I was getting a bit concerned that there was no way we were going to make a connection.

Then, as I broke up the group into smaller teams of six to write their songs, I noticed that – as predicted – the team the warden was on was deferring to him as they began writing their song’s lyric. I checked in several times nudging them in this direction or that to help them refine their message but still there were no outward signs from the warden of anything but a businesslike desire to get through yet another “exercise.”

In my songwriting workshops, once the teams have written the lyrics to their song’s verse and chorus, I ask them what genre they think their song should be. Country? Blues? Pop? Jazz? When the warden stated that he’d envisioned this song as a heavy metal ballad in the style of the Scorpions, I got my first indication that maybe there was something going on beneath his stoic facade. As I started playing chords and creating a melody for their song, it was like someone flipped a switch and – truly out of the blue – the warden became animated, engaged and totally immersed in what he and his team were doing.

If ninety minutes earlier, someone had told me that this taciturn business executive would be up in front of his assembled colleagues enthusiastically singing his newly written 80s-style heavy metal ballad, it would have been my turn to be skeptical.

The power of songs to challenge, transform, communicate and connect is equal parts inspiring and humbling. It’s why I write songs and why I now teach others to do the same.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s try a short experiment. Bring yourself back in your mind to the summer after your senior year in high school. You’re driving, the radio is playing and your favorite song comes on. If you were to hear that song right now, my guess is you’d be back in your car and every one of your senses would be alive with the emotions and memories of that time. For me, it was Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” which I’d performed in a talent show with some friends earlier that year. The acoustic guitar riff that signals the start of that song can still – over thirty years later – put me back in Memphis in that long, sticky summer before I headed out west for college. Still don’t believe me? Go to YouTube, find your song and listen. I’ll wait… Now that you’ve done that, I’m almost certain I don’t have to tell you how powerful songs – and songwriting – can be.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

This “Five Questions” blog post, features the CEO of the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, Jane Allen.

1. What was your biggest concern/fear prior to the songwriting workshop?

The fact that creativity is not my strong suit.

2. Can you describe how it felt to write your song?

It was a lot of fun.

3. What was it like hearing the music added to your lyrics?

It was interesting to hear how the music just flowed and aligned with the lyrics.

4. How did songwriting make you think differently about your particular topic?

That people view the topic with different perspectives and how that all came together to get the song completed.

5. What is one of the things from the workshop that you’d most like to share with someone else?

It was a great team building exercise, it allowed people to express their individual thoughts and then watch people come together to get the song done – all while having fun and without feeling uncomfortable – definitely recommend. 

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

By definition a metaphor is simply “a thing that is representative or symbolic of something else.” That sounds simple enough but what often gets overlooked is the magic that happens when you attempt to represent your original idea or problem in with its often dry, prosaic wording with something more visual and emotionally compelling. All of a sudden, new doors open and ideas, angles and solutions tend to present themselves where there were seemingly none available before. It is the unassuming metaphor that works as a skeleton key to creativity and a reimagining of your concepts or ideas. Here’s why…

Metaphors are a reminder of our common humanity
At work, we can get so wrapped up in being efficient and productive that our focus narrows to the point of excluding alternate ideas and approaches to problems. This can be a good thing if the problems and solutions are clearly defined. When it comes to innovation or sticky, intractable problems however, this narrowness of focus can be detrimental. Metaphors and their accompanying emotional energy remind us that we’re not simply cogs in a corporate machine but, rather, humans looking for ways to make life better for others and, ultimately ourselves. Metaphors have the power to do that. In my workshops during the pandemic, we explored the idea of “working remotely” and used metaphors like being adrift in lifeboats, lost in the forest, in a long-distance relationship as well as many others which instantly brought humanity back into the discussion of remote workplaces. Metaphors are powerful stuff.

Metaphors work with your heart as much as your head
Much like the emphasis on productivity and efficiency that is prized in the workplace, clear “thinking” is often – and rightly – thought of as a positive trait. However, sometimes it takes clear “feeling” to unlock solutions that the intellect can’t uncover on its own. Metaphors with their rich, personal imagery and sensory cues, find a way to touch us and change our thinking to feeling which places us in a new, creative space to look for solutions or alternatives to the way things are currently done. For example, a group of airline executives decided to examine “coordinating disparate teams” through the metaphorical lens of a flock of geese flying south for the winter. That shift in perspective added the elements of survival and caring for each other along the way to an otherwise rather dry business problem making it more compelling and solutions more meaningful.

There are countless metaphors for every issue or idea
The beauty of exploring ideas and problems through their metaphorical equivalents is that there are an almost endless number metaphors for any given idea. As I mentioned above, you can look at the concept of “working remotely” using metaphors as divergent as a tray of ice cubes, foxholes in a battle and even the old TV gameshow “Hollywood Squares.” Each metaphor brings a new set of images and thoughts all of which provide a more well-rounded approach to exploring any and all ideas.

Conclusion
I’m assuming you’ve heard the expression that “if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Well, to continue that particular meta-metaphor, the metaphor itself gives you more than just a “hammer” to explore your problems so that you’re better able to come up with new and refreshing solutions.

-Cliff

Find out more about Cliff’s creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.