Welcome to the first in my “Five Questions” blog posts. In order to demonstrate the power of using songwriting to explore ideas and enhance innovation, I’ve put together a five-question interview that I’ve sent out to some of my previous workshop attendees.

First on the list is my friend and international best-selling author of The Back of the Napkin, Dan Roam.

What was your biggest concern/fear prior to the songwriting workshop?
I was worried that, having never written a song and being a terrible singer, I would embarrass myself in front of a group of people I didn’t know. As it turned out, at every moment of Cliff’s thoughtful program, I was inspired, had a wonderful time and felt increasingly confident – both as a songwriter and as an innovator.  

2) Can you describe how it felt to write your first song?
As a member of our impromptu songwriting team, and under the generous guidance of Cliff’s step-by-step instruction, it felt fabulous to discover that we could actually craft a real song. I loved every minute of it.

3) What was the experience of hearing the music added to your lyrics?
In a word: magic. AND there are two parts to this magic:

First, I’d never realized how easy it is to remember a long string of words and ideas when they are set to music. I need to find a way to use this truth in structuring and remembering my own best thoughts.

Second, Cliff really is a magician; his ability to instantly add a legit Motown back to our lyrics and then sing it PERFECTLY the first time is mind-blowing. 

4) How did songwriting make you think differently about your chosen topic?
Thinking through a somewhat painful topic (in this case, our endless life of remote meetings) using music made it seem not only less sad, but made me think about the topic from an optimistic side – and see rays of light ahead that I had not detected before. When we sang our song, I felt hopeful in a way I haven’t felt in a long time.  

5) What is one of the things from the workshop that you’d most like to share with someone else?
Good innovation comes from creativity, and nothing exposes your hidden creativity muscle faster and more vibrantly than making music.  

Find out more about Cliff’s Innovation/Songwriting workshops for business teams here.

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.”

Robert Shaw

“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.

Innovation Skill #1—Lateral thinking

Songwriting Component—The metaphor

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.

Innovation Skill #2—Creativity

Songwriting Component—The verse

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.

Innovation Skill #3—Communication

Songwriting Component—The chorus

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.

Innovation Skill #4—Empathy

Songwriting Component—Observation

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 Skill #5—Collaboration

Songwriting Component—Co-writing

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.

Innovation Skill #6—Risk-Taking

Songwriting Component—Vulnerability

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 Skill #7—Diffusion

Songwriting Component—Performance

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.

Thinking laterally (aka differently) about your products, services or processes is the first and most important step on the road to innovation. Without moving away from your existing problem-solving mindset, you can’t expect a significantly different result.

As Edward de Bono put it in his seminal work on the topic, “Lateral thinking stimulates new pattern formation by juxtaposing unlikely information.” And to this exact point, there is no device that I’ve found better at juxtaposing “unlikely information” than the metaphor. Imagine thinking about your marketing team not as a simple collection of employees trying to promote your company’s products but, rather, as a flock of geese headed south for the winter. The power of this image and the dependence the geese have on one another for their ultimate survival can restructure your thinking about how teams work in profound ways. This is the inherent power of reimagining your current products and processes as metaphors.

Metaphors by definition

I’ll start with the definition of a metaphor. A metaphor is, quite simply, “a thing that is representative or symbolic of something else.” And it is precisely in the search to find something “representative” and “symbolic” of your concept where the creative journey begins.

There are countless examples of songs that use metaphor to more powerfully convey a message that might otherwise come across as either boring or cliché. “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones comes to mind. I’m almost certain the Stones weren’t actually singing a song about unrefined sugar.

The benefits of using metaphor can be broken down into four main areas. First, they are rich in sensory language. Second, they infuse emotion into otherwise uninspired subject matter. Third, they make any message more memorable. And, finally, with the ultimate goal of improved innovation, metaphors require you to engage in lateral thinking when confronting familiar concepts, ideas or issues.

1. Metaphors are rich in sensory language

Appealing to the five senses—sight, smell, sound, taste and touch—in any writing reaches your intended audience in a way that non-descriptive language can’t possibly achieve. To demonstrate the power of sensory language, I’m going to start by reminding you of the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Communicating visually is one of the single most effective ways of distilling your message into a form that people will understand quickly and completely. For example, you can either refer to a person as “interesting”—a description so vague that it can be taken as either a compliment or an insult—or you can depict that same person as having a “Mona Lisa smile” which immediately conjures up the mysterious yet knowing expression of that iconic work of art adding both depth and texture to your subject matter.

2. Metaphors infuse emotion into your ideas

At the core of who we are as humans are our emotions. An abundance of emotion can be both overwhelming and off-putting to your intended audience but messages that lack any emotional content are equally unappealing. Metaphors are a powerful way to infuse just the right amount of “why someone should care” into your writing. It’s one thing to say this subject is “important” and another entirely to describe that same subject by using the metaphor of the “red, flashing light and screaming siren on a fire truck.” The emotions that red lights, sirens and fire trucks evoke make your message decidedly more compelling.

3. Metaphors make your message more memorable

Any time you can associate a metaphor with a concept, you greatly improve the chances of that concept being remembered. In these days of shorter and shorter attention spans, anything you can do to grab your intended audience’s attention and make your message memorable will go a long way towards helping you rise above the noise of uninspired day to day communication.

4. Metaphors require us to think laterally about familiar concepts

When we encounter the same concepts over and over again in the course of our working lives, we develop a tendency—mostly for efficiency’s sake—to stop looking at them with fresh eyes or a beginner’s mind. This is natural and sometimes the best, most effective way to work. However, if the goal is to think differently about otherwise familiar ideas or products, then looking at them via metaphor is a great way to proceed. By searching for appropriate metaphors to describe your chosen topic, you will be forced to avoid familiar patterns of thinking which can impede your ability to innovate.


Find out more about Cliff’s book “The Reason For The Rhymes: Mastering The Seven Essential Skills of Innovation by Learning to Write Songs.”

Kevin Ashton, in his inspiring book on creativity entitled “How To Fly A Horse,” makes the simplest and best case for creativity as a primary driver for innovation when he writes, “We beat change with change.” In other words, we need to create the necessary change—aka innovate—that will allow us to keep up with a changing world.

Here’s the good news. As a living, breathing member of the human race, you are born with the innate urge to create. This creativity can take many forms from childhood finger painting all the way up to designing skyscrapers. The bad news is that the older and more entrenched in your life and drive to be productive you become, the less room you allow for creativity at its most fundamental level.

Songwriting can provide you with the means to rediscover your creativity. Writing songs— and specifically the details required in verse writing—serves as an important reminder that you are—at your core—a creative being.

Another way to look at this is that writing verses is a concentrated form of storytelling. One of the wonderfully unexpected benefits of this songwriting exercise is that the realization of your innate creative impulses is deeply motivating. I’m convinced that with practice you can absolutely rekindle your natural born creativity using the storytelling inherent in writing your song’s verse.

In his 1959 paper, “The Processes of Creative Thinking,” noted computer scientist and Turing award winner, Allen Newell put it best when he wrote, “Creative thinking is simply a special kind of problem-solving behavior.”

One of the things I love most about teaching my songwriting workshop to executive teams is that I’m working with smart people— unconditioned to thinking of themselves as creative—and showing them that all they’re missing is a little direction. And once you begin the process of learning to write songs in the service of your creativity, you’ll see that this applies directly to you.


Find out more about Cliff’s songwriting/innovation workshops for business teams.

Innovation teams have a larger responsibility than just coming up with new products and ideas. They need to be able to describe their innovations succinctly and in a relatable way. The better your ability to communicate, the greater the likelihood that your innovations will succeed. Period.

In chorus writing, the simple act of attempting to express your song’s message in a unique and focused way will help you build a set of “muscles” that you can use anytime you get stuck looking for the best, most distilled way to communicate.

Distilling Your Message

Early in my career as a producer, when my hourly studio rate was ridiculously low, I was fortunate enough to live in Nashville because
in Nashville, established, successful songwriters—in the interest of keeping their songwriting demo costs down—looked for new studios with low rates doing decent work where they could record. As a result, I made recordings of hundreds of great songs for hit songwriters which exposed me to exceptional songwriting from the inside out.

I remember one session, in particular, where I glanced over at one of my client’s lyric sheets during the session and noticed just how empty the page looked. It was amazing to me that a song that felt so complete had so few words. It left an indelible impression.

As a case in point, let’s look at the first verse and chorus to the song, “My Girl.”

I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day
When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May

Well I guess you’d say what can make me feel this way
My girl (my girl, my girl), talkin’ ‘bout my girl (my girl)

Not to put too fine a point on it but this is a VERY short lyric. A few two-line verses and a two-line chorus that repeats the hook “my girl” five times! There’s almost nothing there. And yet, this was a #1 song for the Temptations and, recently, it was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress for being “artistically significant.” It seems to me that the writers, Smokey Robinson and Ronald White, said exactly what was necessary in those few lines to cement their place in millions of listeners’ memories and in music history.

All this to say, learning how to write the chorus of a song is a master class in thinking clearly and succinctly about any and all of your ideas.


Find out more about Cliff’s book “The Reason For The Rhymes: Mastering The Seven Essential Skills of Innovation by Learning to Write Songs.”

The skillful use of empathy is critical to the innovation process. By deepening your understanding of potential customers’ current and future needs, empathy enables you to more clearly focus your efforts. But, just as importantly, empathy will enable you to resonate more profoundly with colleagues and customers in order to better understand how your innovations will be perceived. This refined emotional intelligence and increased ability to understand your subjects’ perceptions will go a long way towards improving the acceptance and diffusion of even radically changed products, services or processes.

By shining a light on a chosen concept or idea, songwriting requires the songwriter to observe in a dedicated and empathetic way. It is precisely the need for this kind of focused observation in your songwriting that will strengthen your ability to see things from others’ points of view.

It isn’t hard to find examples of empathy in songwriting. Take the first verse of Carole King’s 1972 GRAMMY-winning song of the year, “You’ve Got A Friend.”

When you’re down and troubled
And you need a helping hand
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night

This verse is a classic case of how the songwriter’s observation and resulting empathy color a song’s message. First of all, it’s clear that the songwriter wants to help the song’s subject. However, it goes deeper in that the lyric is actually about the subject’s experience as opposed to being about the songwriter’s experience. This is the very definition of empathy.

While “You’ve Got A Friend” is an overt instance of how songwriting can be empathetic, all effective songs require a level of observation that invariably enhances the empathy of the writer in the bargain.


Find out more about Cliff’s songwriting/innovation workshops for business teams.

Collaboration as a skill improves innovation in several essential ways. First and foremost, collaboration allows disparate business teams to work together to either innovate directly or in support of the specific teams charged with innovation. Secondly, collaboration puts individuals together enabling them to play to their specific strengths which makes for better innovations. Also, collaboration has a powerful effect on the creative environment that is invariably a part of the innovative process. As lateral thinking expert Edward de Bono writes, “It often happens that an idea may seem very obvious and trivial to one person and yet it can combine with other ideas in someone else’s mind to produce something very original.” Another way to put this is that collaboration makes for the kind of innovation that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Although it might not seem intuitive at first, co-writing is the perfect microcosm of—and training ground for—effective collaboration. Given how personal songs are, it might surprise you to know how much of contemporary commercial songwriting is collaborative. When I first started writing songs, I couldn’t imagine sharing such a private process with another songwriter. These songs were my “song children” and I was going to raise them myself thank you very much. I equated the act of co-writing with the idea of co-painting or co-dating. It just wasn’t going to happen.

But then I moved to Nashville. Nashville is the unofficial home of co-writing and it’s not at all unusual for two songwriters who don’t know each other to meet in line at the grocery store and decide to get together later that week to write a song. Something about the fearlessness of this approach helped me get past my significant reservations and give songwriting collaboration a try. I owe my entire career to that decision.

These days my specialty as a songwriter is collaborating with recording artists where the goal is to write songs with them for their upcoming albums. I’ve had the privilege of doing this with some truly remarkable people from the septuagenarian drummer for the Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart, to a sixteen-year- old Kesha before the “s” in her name was a dollar sign. Both artists, I’m pleased to say, were true devotees of their songwriting craft and wanted nothing more than for our work to result in successful songs. All this to say, I’m a big believer in the benefits of songwriting collaboration. Interestingly, the same things that make co-writing successful also apply to collaboration on work projects. I’ve listed the primary benefits below.

1. Collaboration allows everyone to play to their strengths

While I’m pretty much all-in on co-writing now, I’d be lying if I said the process was comfortable for me when I first started. I began co-writing with other songwriters when I was still at the stage in my own songwriting process where I didn’t know what my strengths and weaknesses were. This was not a great way to start because it meant that I didn’t know who my best, most compatible collaborators were going to be. It took dozens of co-writes, some good, some terrible, to begin to understand where I was strong and where I was weak as a songwriter. In my case, when I was paired with another lyricist we often struggled mightily over who had the best lyrical line at the expense of our song’s melody which was mostly overlooked. However, when I wrote with strong melody writers, my lyrics practically jumped out of the studio speakers because they were paired with inspired melodies. All this to say, collaboration revealed my strengths as a lyricist and limitations as a melody writer so that I eventually learned to find complementary co-writers. As a result, my collaborators and I would end up with songs better than either one of us could have written on our own. In any work environment, the more you collaborate, the more clear your strengths and weaknesses will become and the better able you’ll be to find your best, most productive collaborations.

2. Collaboration = accountability

Even if you have something important that you want to say, sitting down to write a song can feel daunting and even scary. As a result, it’s way too easy to put off songwriting for any half-baked excuse about having other work to do. One of the things I have come to really appreciate about collaboration is that it makes the participants accountable to one another. This way, even on days when you’re dreading writing, you’re much less likely to back out since there are others counting on you to show up and do your share of work. Often this accountability has been the only thing between a productive writing session and an unnecessary cancellation. In the same way, the power of accountability on any work project is a palpable and undeniable benefit.

3. Dividing your workload makes it easier to stay motivated

The math behind this benefit is simple. If you share the work, it’s just plain less work for everyone involved. When the workload is divided, it’s also easier to get yourself to do it. I’ve used collaboration throughout my career as a way to keep myself motivated to write. In addition, my primary goal as a songwriter was and is all about getting the maximum number of songs out into the world where good things can happen with them. Even though I might only own half the copyright of each song I co-write, I’m putting out double the number of songs each of which represents an opportunity for my music to reach people and generate additional royalty income. All this to say, collaboration in all its forms is motivating as it increases your output while, at the same time, lessening your load.

4. Collaboration makes for stronger teams

Some of my longest and best friendships are with my musical collaborators. We’ve come together to put something of artistic value into the world and that history is the basis of a deep-seated trust and connection. Similarly, one of the things I particularly enjoy observing in my corporate songwriting work is the way teams of professional colleagues come together to do something that has very clearly taken all of them far beyond their comfort zones. This shared sense of mission and the resulting art that they create builds a bond that enhances everything that particular team does from that moment onward. A common cause is a powerful thing in any form.

A brief final note… I’m always wary of referring to my work with executives as “team-building” given my program’s strong emphasis on innovation. I think it would be a mistake to think of songwriting as the musical equivalent of a trust fall exercise when the rewards are much deeper and longer-lasting. Instead, I’d suggest considering the “team-building” aspects of songwriting as a meaningful but clearly secondary benefit.


Find out more about Cliff’s songwriting/innovation workshops for business teams.

Innovation, by definition, requires you to create something new often in an attempt to replace a current product, service or process which might be working just fine as it is. It takes a certain amount of courage to overcome this “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” inertia especially since there will always be resistance to opposing the status quo. However, developing your ability to take risks and step away from the well-worn path that your business has always taken can pay enormous dividends.

Writing—and then singing—songs is a way to build your risk-taking tolerance by exploring your own vulnerability in the psychologically safe setting of a songwriting exercise. These days, vulnerability in the workplace is in extremely short supply and it doesn’t take a psychologist to understand how resistant we can be to appearing foolish in front of our peers. That being said, a little vulnerability goes a long way when you want to connect with those around you on a basic human level.

Songwriting provides implicit permission to tap into your emotional core. By making yourself more vulnerable and real—especially in the singing of your finished song—you’ll connect with those around you in a much more meaningful way. But before you can sing your song, you’ll need to put the lyric you’ve been working on to music.

Sing it!

It’s only fair I should confess that in my teens, even after taking piano lessons for almost ten years and even though I was totally comfortable playing piano in front of big groups of people, I was truly terrified of singing. I mean, self-conscious, sweat through my clothes, barely able to function, terrified of singing. There are few things that make us feel more exposed and vulnerable than singing. Good. That’s part of what makes it the final, secret ingredient in the songwriting process.

Here’s why…

1. Singing takes you out of your comfort zone

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with successful and highly confident executives (e.g., the CMO of a Fortune 500 company). These are people who, over time, have grown accustomed to being on top of their game and in complete control . . .and deservedly so. However, even though success and confidence are wonderful things, these qualities tend not to lend themselves to developing new skills. And why should someone at this level even bother? Things are working pretty darn well just as they are, right?
Well, as I’m sure you’re aware, standing still these days is the business equivalent of moving backwards. In other words, if you’re not learning and growing and challenging yourself (i.e., innovating) all the time, you will almost certainly lose interest in what you’re doing and, worse yet, risk falling behind your competition. So my asking you—no matter how successful and confident in your world you might be—to write a song and then sing it in front of your peers is a quick and effective way of taking you out of your comfort zone and reminding you that you might still have new skills to develop.

2. Singing scares you and makes you pay attention

A funny thing happens to people when they are made uncomfortable or slightly stressed. They pay attention. When I guide a group of executives through the songwriting process and then get them up on stage to sing it,
I’m well aware I’ve taken them significantly outside of their comfort zones. In so doing, it’s safe to say I have commandeered their full attention and all prior distractions tend to drop away. At that point, my executive teams achieve what can best be described as a state of flow where they are totally immersed in the task at hand. Fear does that. Now, granted, this isn’t the kind of “afraid for your life or safety” fear that I hope no one ever has to experience but it’s definitely enough fear
to create focused intellectual and emotional energy in a group of successful, smart and, all of a sudden, pretty uncomfortable people.

3. Singing—especially for non-singers—is a memorable experience

I’ve noticed across all of the songwriting workshops I’ve given that asking non-singers to sing makes that event stand out in their minds and memories. More importantly, it will help you remember your song—and subsequently your message—in a far more effective way than if you’d just written words on a page and left it at that. Singing is the “two” in the “one, two” punch of putting your words first to music and secondly performing what you’ve written. Everything about good songwriting is designed to make your message compelling and memorable. By singing your song, not only have you created a memorable experience for your listeners but also in this instance—and even more importantly— you’ve created a memorable experience for yourself as the songwriter and performer.

In support of this, Lisa Kay Solomon and Chris Ertel in their best-selling business book, “Moments of Impact,” make it clear that a powerful, shared experience takes you out of your customary auto-pilot behavior and is the key to making that moment memorable. By the way, I’ve asked attendees of my songwriting workshops years after the fact what the song they wrote was about and, without exception, they ALL remember. That’s the kind of attention to—and retention of—a message you can rely on when you write and then sing your song.

4. Singing is motivational

Finally, I’ve observed again and again that the combination of challenging yourself to step out of your comfort zone by singing and the very human, creative act of making music results in a burst of energy that can only be described as unadulterated motivation. I’ve watched seemingly stern, businesslike executives smile, laugh and interact in a way they would never have imagined prior to writing and then singing their songs. The joy that songwriting can bring is inspiring for everyone involved.


Find out more about Cliff’s book “The Reason For The Rhymes: Mastering The Seven Essential Skills of Innovation by Learning to Write Songs.”