Hi and welcome to my blog!
I thought I’d start with the preface to my book, “The Reason For The Rhymes.”
“In these days of political, personal and economic disintegration, music is not a luxury, it’s a necessity; not simply because it is therapeutic, nor because it is the universal language, but because it is the persistent focus of our intelligence, aspiration and goodwill.”
“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.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more blog posts on how learning to write songs develops critical business and innovation skills.
Find out more about Cliff’s songwriting/innovation workshops for business teams.
The requirements for effective innovation can be boiled down to seven essential skills. I’ll begin with a brief description of each skill and then enumerate the way that a specific component of the songwriting process will enhance that particular skill.
When it comes to innovation, it can help to remember that in order to create something new and different, you need to think differently about your current product, market or process. Another way to describe this is to think laterally. By avoiding a standard, linear approach to problem-solving, you can avoid the same, well-worn and often suboptimal “solutions.” In his book, “Lateral Thinking,” Edward de Bono makes this point beautifully when he states “the mind is a cliché making and cliché using system. The purpose of lateral thinking is to overcome these limitations by providing a means for restructuring, for escaping from cliché patterns, for putting information together in new ways to give new ideas.”
Songwriting provides the perfect device to help you “put information together in new ways” and escape from the aforementioned “cliché patterns.” That device is the metaphor. By learning to reexamine any idea from the standpoint of its metaphorical equivalent, you will empower yourself to think in ways that don’t reveal themselves using the standard problem-solving approach.
Creativity is at the heart of innovation. That being said, there is a common misconception that creativity is the domain of a specialized group of individuals with a “gift” for it. This is simply untrue. In an article for Fast Company magazine, neuroscientist and author Tara Swart summarizes the keys to creativity as “practice” and “intention.” In other words, you have the ability to be creative if you’re willing to develop it.
Writing songs—and specifically the details required in verse writing—will serve as an important reminder that you are—at your core—a creative being. As you’ll see in the coming pages, writing verses is quite simply a concentrated form of storytelling. The more you develop your verse writing/storytelling skills, the easier your access to your own creativity will become.
Properly highlighting the uniqueness and value of your innovation comes down to the ability to communicate in a way that is both clear and compelling. This communication works both internally as a way to assure buy- in from your colleagues as well as externally when it comes to the marketing of your new product or service.
The chorus of a song is the deceptively simple summary and distillation of your message. Choruses are often very short and highly repetitive so if your message isn’t perfectly refined, you run the risk of missing your opportunity to connect with your audience. The better you become at writing choruses, the better your communication skills will be in any situation.
Another key to effective innovation is the understanding of how your ideas will be perceived both inside your organization and externally by your customers. The more developed your empathy is as an innovator, the greater your ability to connect with those people who most need to believe in what you’ve created.
Similarly, in order to write a song, you need to first consider and observe from the standpoint of the song’s subject. Writing while continuously keeping your subject’s feelings and behavior in mind, automatically strengthens your ability to empathize.
Innovation requires multiple varieties of collaboration from the outreach across silos within a company to simply putting together a team that can leverage the strengths of its individual members.
Co-writing is a microcosm of the exact form of collaboration necessary for successful innovation. Each of the component parts of songwriting from developing the metaphor to storytelling in the verses to refining the core of the song’s message in the chorus requires different skills. When these skills are shared among songwriting collaborators, it can make any song better than the sum of its individual writers.
Developing new products and processes to replace current ones—even when they’re working—requires a kind of risk-taking that is antithetical to most businesses and executives. That being said, in order to stay competitive and grow, this kind of risk-taking through innovation is essential.
Writing—and ultimately singing—songs will require you to make yourself vulnerable in a work context which will feel undoubtedly risky as you will likely fear potential ridicule. However, doing this in a structured, psychologically safe setting will allow you to build up your risk-taking tolerance in a healthy and consistent way.
Innovation doesn’t work in a vacuum. In order for an innovation to succeed, it needs to be propagated to those who can most benefit. If this doesn’t happen, an innovation is simply a good idea that never sees the light of day.
In the same way, songs are designed to be shared. Writing a song is only the first step. The true power of songs is when they connect with—and move—others. To that end, the performance of your song carries the added significance of reminding you that new ideas need to be shared.
Find out more about Cliff’s book “The Reason For The Rhymes: Mastering The Seven Essential Skills of Innovation by Learning to Write Songs.”
For as long as I’ve been playing music, I’ve been a fan of the blues. There’s something about the universality of that musical language and the predictable but still infinitely variable music that I just love.
When I was in my twenties, I became a huge fan of a then relative newcomer to the blues scene with the stage name Keb’ Mo’. The combination of his exceptional instrumental work and a voice which resonated deeply with this age-old art form was—and is— irresistible to me. So, you can imagine my delight when, almost twenty-five years later, my music publisher set us up to co-write.
The experience was everything I could have hoped it would be as Kevin Moore (Keb’ Mo’s non-stage name) was a truly gracious and welcoming collaborator. Not only did we end up writing a song together called “Cold Outside” but he released it on his album “Oklahoma” which, in a career-defining moment for me, went on to win a GRAMMY.
When we were chatting after our writing session, Kevin gave me some great insight into his early days as a performer. He told me that after one of his shows when he was just starting out, he was talking to his uncle about the performance Kevin had just given and asked his uncle what he thought. “What you need,” his uncle said, “is a hundred dollar pair of pants.”
Kevin took this seemingly unrelated observation to mean that while the performance was technically solid, the attitude and the confidence were missing. Those hundred dollar pants would both display and impart the confidence that all great performers have. It must have worked as Keb’ Mo’ now has five GRAMMYs, twelve GRAMMY nominations and is a genuine icon in the blues world.
I truly believe that the motivation you will achieve from writing and singing a song will act like your “hundred dollar pair of pants” as you make your way through your work on innovation.
Find out more about Cliff’s songwriting/innovation workshops for business teams.