I’ve heard it said that the keys to creativity are practice and intention. To that end, it can help to know what to practice once you have the intention to develop your creativity. Having a songwriter’s mindset is a great place to start as many of the skills that make for good songwriting are the same skills that enhance all creativity.

Empathy

Songwriters are, first and foremost, observers. By developing a keen eye for the human condition, songwriters learn to put themselves in the place of the subjects of their songs. This is the very definition of empathy. And above and beyond the intrinsic relationship value of having empathy, it’s a shortcut to improved innovation and creativity as it allows us to more deeply understand and attend to the needs of our clients.

Risk-Taking

Creativity requires a willingness to leave our comfort zones in the service of putting something new and meaningful into the world. Songwriting works as a way to inoculate ourselves agains the fear of taking risks by gradually encouraging us to show more of ourselves and our feelings…otherwise put, our humanity. This vulnerability comes with the reward of deeper connection and the motivation to take more risks in the service of your creative practice.

Communication

Learning to write songs is about the transformation of an idea or concept into a refined and compelling vehicle to convey your message. There is no better tool for refining your thoughts than the process of distilling them into a song lyric. Lyrics are about brevity and impact and all communication can benefit from those skills.

Collaboration

If I’ve learned anything in my three-plus decades of writing songs, it’s that my creative process benefits greatly from collaboration. By pairing myself with people whose songwriting strengths shore up my weaknesses and vice versa, I’ve built a catalog of songs that are far  better than any songs I could have written on my own. My co-writing experience mirrors any good collaboration and being open to sharing your process can lead to gains far beyond what we can do alone.

Problem Solving

Taking the seed of an idea and turning it into a finished song  requires a variety of different creative tools. Each attempt to “crack the code” of a song strengthens our problem solving muscles in a way that gives us increased confidence the next time we face a similar – or  different – challenge. Songwriter’s are wired to solve problems and simply thinking that way is half the battle.

Conclusion

You don’t need to be a professional songwriter to benefit from thinking – and behaving – like one. The simple act of learning the component parts of what makes songs work and trying for yourself can unlock your access all of the above skills. It’s always inspiring to see how quickly the business teams I lead through the process of learning to write songs not only catch on but also demonstrate each of the elements of the songwriter’s mindset to the benefit of their songs and their continued creativity.

-Cliff

Find out more about my creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

Since I firmly believe that creativity and productivity work best when equally developed, I’ve been giving some serious thought to the ways that I’ve actively structured my life and career to balance the two. It’s not simply a matter of honoring both the creative and productive elements in our lives but the clear proof that each element improves and enhances the other. To that end, I thought I’d start with the way that I’ve balanced my songwriting career with my work as a recording engineer.

Being a songwriter is about unbridled creativity

I started writing songs from a place of sheer inspiration. After more than ten years of classical piano training as a kid (and never having written a song), I taught myself to play guitar my freshman year of college and wrote my first song just a few years later. Something about the freedom to discover a new instrument on my own terms unlocked a desire to express myself creatively. Now over thirty years – and more than a thousand songs – later, I’m still moved to put new songs into the world. Writing songs is about channeling inspiration which, while exciting, is still – even after all these years – emotionally taxing. I love the feeling of “going to the well” of creativity but there are times when it simply feels better to dig into something clear and predictable. Hence, without knowing exactly why it was important to me at the time, I also built a recording studio business in tandem with my work as songwriter.

Being a recording engineer is about nuts and bolts productivity

For me (and I’m sure many of you), there is something deeply soothing about knowing exactly what to do and when. That is the essence of engineering in the studio. Whether it’s reading a four-hundred page manual to learn about a new piece of equipment or figuring out which cable to connect to which device to make everything work, audio engineering has always scratched my productivity itch. I love the precision and predictability of engineering and the satisfaction of knowing that if done properly the results are undeniable. That being said, too much precision and predictability can feel somewhat dry and uninspired which then leads me back to the emotional spelunking of songwriting.

How being a songwriter and recording engineer work together

Now here’s where things get good. My experience shows that knowing I’ll be able to capture a beautiful recording of my new song in my studio will give me the confidence and bravery to tolerate the short-term emotional chaos that songwriting brings. But, at the same time, the awareness that I’ll be writing new songs to record, provides me with extra motivation to make sure my studio equipment is updated, properly connected and running smoothly. It is in the development, maintenance and interplay of my creativity and productivity that they both flourish.

Conclusion

I’m certain that I was simply exploring things I found interesting when I started writing songs and putting together my first recording studio. And as a result, it wasn’t until much later that I began to understand how my right brain-inspired creativity and my left brain’s desire for precision informed one another. However, I can now say with complete confidence that they absolutely do. This is but one of many examples of how creativity and productivity work together. I’m also convinced that those of you who lean far to one side or the other on the creativity/productivity spectrum can benefit greatly by incorporating even small elements your less-developed side into your lives. The goal, in time, is to honor and grow both creativity and productivity so that they can not only help on their own but also in the way they inform one another.

-Cliff

Find out more about my creativity & innovation workshops for business teams.

Let me begin by saying that if you’re struggling to access and develop your creativity, you’re not alone. Even full-time creatives such as myself find the process intimidating and daunting from time to time. To that end, I’ve put together a few creativity hacks that make the process not only more accessible but also more fun. 

1. Designate a creative space

Creativity is absolutely environment-dependent. Attempting any creative endeavor from painting to poetry to music is significantly easier if you are able to carve out a little space in your home or office that lends itself to inspiration. Not only that but entering that space works as a kind of signal that you’ll be tapping into your imagination. I should also say that by “creative space” I don’t just mean physical space but also space on your calendar. Picking a time of day when you are less distracted and there are fewer demands on your time can be extremely helpful as well.

2.  Give yourself a time limit

Speaking of demands on your time, it is somewhat counterintuitive that having unlimited time to create is actually more difficult than having just a little time available. But creativity – ironically – craves constraint. To that end, giving yourself a limited amount of time to create will generate the best results. It’s less intimidating to know, for example, that you’ve only got 15 minutes to try to write a poem instead of the entire weekend.

3. Don’t wait around for inspiration

In the early days of my songwriting career, it never occurred to me that I could go out and get inspiration. I thought that inspiration simply showed up and then it was my job to do something with it. I think I wrote my first twenty songs that way. However, for the next 980 songs and beyond, I realized that inspiration was something I could proactively seek. This took many forms but one of the simplest and best practices was that I started keeping a small notebook on my nightstand and each morning I would take a minute and write down a single song title. That’s all. This seemingly insignificant behavior resulted in my always having an idea to bring to a writing session even on days when my inspiration was at low ebb. Think about a tiny creative effort you can do every day so that inspiration is waiting for you instead of the other way around.

4. Find a collaborator/collaborators

As an inveterate songwriting co-writer, I’m a big believer in creative collaboration for a variety of reasons. First and most obviously, it’s half as hard to be creative when you share the work with someone else but it goes deeper than that. Collaboration equals accountability. In my experience, there’s always some significant distraction or task that can get in the way of a solo creative endeavor (folding your socks or gazing at your own navel come to mind). But when you schedule an appointment with your collaborator, you’re holding each other accountable which tends to keep us honest and on creative track.

5. Be macro patient and micro impatient

This is one of the best suggestions I’ve ever heard on how to have a successful creative practice. What “macro patient” means is that any significant creative gains are, on some level, beyond our immediate control and getting frustrated when they don’t come sooner will be a futile exercise. So you should stay patient when it comes to dramatic improvement. However, you should also be “micro impatient” to do some kind of creative work every day and not wait around for things to happen. This “impatience” has the benefit of improving your creative output while also keeping you from worrying too much about the big picture.

Conclusion

Creativity can be – and often is – a truly joyful process. However, as noted psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states in his seminal book “Finding Flow,” creativity (like the flow state) requires a certain amount of “activation energy” which can be enough to discourage most would be creatives. The above tips are ways to get you past the natural resistance to creativity and will, hopefully, serve to deepen your creative practice.

-Cliff

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

First of all, a note of sincere thanks for receiving – and reading – my blog posts up to this point.

To say that I love my songwriting work with business teams and entrepreneurs would be an understatement.

If you’d like to know more about how I can help you and your team enhance your creativity and solve problems, either email me or give me a call at 615-320-7233.

I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

-Cliff

When faced with the thought of doing something outside of our comfort zones, most of us – myself included – tend to resist at first. I completely understand. So I’m never surprised when I’m met with some version of skepticism or even fear when I tell my assembled executives that they’re going to write – and then sing – a song. This response means two things. One, I’m doing my job properly and, two, the outcome of the exercise will have the powerful effect of opening the eyes of my teams to a new way of problem-solving and exploring their creativity. Below are three good reasons to write a song in spite of your initial fear.

1. Genuine growth requires leaving your comfort zone
One of my favorite expressions has always been, “if you want something you’ve never had, you must do something you’ve never done.” In order to grow and improve, we need to take risks and push beyond our usual boundaries. This kind of risk-taking doesn’t come naturally to any of us but it’s critical not only for growth but also for any kind of innovation. Learning to write a song in spite of its unfamiliarity and potential for embarrassment is a safe and easy way to build up your tolerance for risk and demonstrate to yourself that you’re capable of achieving a hitherto impossible-seeming goal.

2. Songwriting develops critical innovation skills
Breaking down ideas and examining them through the lens of songwriting is a truly unique way to enhance your approach to problem-solving. The use of metaphor in songwriting improves your ability to think differently about any issue. The storytelling inherent in verse-writing invariably helps my workshop participants rediscover their creativity. And, finally, the writing of choruses in songs sheds new light on how to generate incisive and distilled communication in any context. All of these skills (and even a few more) are explored and developed via learning to write songs.

3. If you can innovate, you’ll stay forever relevant
Just like there is resistance to writing a song if you’ve never done it, there is often resistance to innovation as it requires exploring new approaches when the current approach might still be viable. The danger, however, is that what is working today – e.g., what you’re comfortable with – is not necessarily what is going to work in the future. Songwriting develops the critical skills of innovation necessary to keep you and your business relevant well into the future where maintaining the status quo could prove fatal.

Bonus tip – Doing something you thought was impossible is indescribably motivating
I’ve observed time and again in my workshops with executives that the conquering of the seemingly impossible task of writing a song leaves people deeply motivated and inspired. This not only makes the songs themselves memorable but the after effects also carry over into a sense of confidence stemming from the rediscovery of an often long dormant creativity.

Conclusion
As someone who, himself, was truly terrified of singing when I started out in music, I completely understand the fear that being told to write and sing a song evokes. However, thirty years into a career that has brought me endless joy and satisfaction, I can safely say that leaving your comfort zone in pursuit of something greater has profound and lasting benefits.

-Cliff

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

This “Five Questions” blog post, features the founder of Natural Born Thinkers, Sam Hunter.

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

Could I write something good and could I sing it!?  For whatever reason, being asked to write a piece of poetry or a story seems so much more accessible than writing a song.  The idea of a song seems so much more complicated as you have to put musical notes to it and then sing, pushing on all types of knowledge and perceived artistic limitations.  During the songwriting workshop, Cliff illuminated the essence of songwriting which is visual storytelling, using metaphor to bring your words to life.  As soon as Cliff shared this, I was able to get started as he broke songwriting down in a way that was accessible and personal.  At the end of the day, we all have story to tell. A song is just a new way of sharing it!

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

For about a ten minute period, it was as though my brain parted and allowed the light of my song to shine through. The idea for the song really sparked a set of emotions and imagery which I knew I had to sew together in a story to share my message and feelings with others. I would not have been able to do this had I not attended two of Cliff’s songwriting workshops.

Cliff’s workshops gave me confidence to put my heartfelt words on paper.  I just had to get the story out first and from there could finesse the wording to ensure I was showing, not telling, and had a memorable hook in the chorus.  It felt so amazing and natural to write the song.  When you really have something you want to say and you have the constraints within which to say it, you have purpose and structure to get your story out. It doesn’t have to be – nor will it very likely be – perfect the first time. I suspended all judgement in that moment and just went with what my instincts said. That is what made the process so enjoyable and enlightening!

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

The music really lifts the words off the page and brings them to life. A smile comes across your face and you get this sense of surprise and accomplishment as you realize you have just put some music into the world! I remember both of the songs that I have written with Cliff and know that once you have written one, if you practice and try again, you will be able to write another!

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

Whenever someone has a story they want to tell and a message they want people to remember, I now immediately wonder what the song for this might look like. A song helps to concisely put a message down on paper and then pushes you to consider how you can make this story connect with other people. I think there are a lot of people out there who struggle to tell a story that actually connects with others and a song is a great technique that pushes you to do this.

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

That you can do it! You have a natural born songwriter inside you. You have a story that is unique to you and have seen things in the world that are unique to memory. Your inner voice and memories are all that you need to get started and no one will be able to write the same song you can!

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 does (put concept here) resemble?” So, what does learning how to write songs resemble?

If you can answer that question with “(your concept) is (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 resembles below.

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

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.