UPDATED NOV. 3: In Nashville, they say country music is a form of storytelling. And in a lot of ways, that’s true. Think of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Gambler” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” They aren’t just three of the greatest country songs ever written. They’re also examples of what storytellers of all kinds can learn from Nashville. I mean communicators in public relations, internal comms, journalism and everywhere. The Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 5 will offer lots of more recent examples, including songs by some of the performers listed here. Communicators of any kind can learn from country’s focus on craft, detail and mass marketing. If it’s bigger and more calculated than Loretta and Merle ever imagined, we can still learn how to catch our audience’s attention, milk an emotion or drive home a point. Because how much time do you give a song on the radio before changing the station? Exactly.
1. Don’t Bore Us; Get to the Chorus. What makes this tune — or speech or tweet or blog post — distinctive and relevant? In news, we said, “Don’t bury the lead.” In business, we strive for brevity and avoid jargon. Example: “Cruise,” performed by Florida Georgia Line, which even starts with the hook. 2. Focus, focus, focus. I have a friend whose walls are covered in platinum albums. He reviewed several of my draft compositions, shook his head and said, “Look — a song is about one thing. ONE thing. Not this thing and then another thing and then something else.” That’s helpful when writing in lots of forms. Example: “Follow Your Arrow” performed by Kacey Musgraves, or: Be yourself.
3. Get emotional. As a journalist, I was trained to be objective, removed and dispassionate, so this sometimes feels counterintuitive. I try to remember it at the piano and at the office. Reveal yourself. Risk being vulnerable. Connect emotionally. Example: “The House that Built Me” performed by Miranda Lambert nailed me to my seat the first time I heard it. 4. Show, don’t tell. This is important, of course, in all kinds of writing. Hard to do, sometimes. Example: “I Drive Your Truck” performed by Lee Brice starts with describing the inside of a dead soldier’s vehicle… and then rips your heart out. 5. Write what you know. That doesn’t mean to relate only your own experiences. It means: Don’t BS your audience. They will know — always. Example: Imagine Justin Bieber singing a Willie Nelson classic. 6. Be clear. Music Row doesn’t produce tunes that are too poetic, opaque or otherwise fuzzy. Rock ‘n’ rollers and singer-songwriters can do that. But the best country songs, like the best business communications, are sharp and immediately understood. Example: “I Don’t Want this Night to End,” performed by Luke Bryan. Got it. 7. Tell a story. It’s not always the right approach in business, but it often is. And in Nashville, it’s no coincidence that many of the most-honored songs tell a narrative. Example: “Stay,” performed by Sugarland, about a mistress who decides she’s worth more than second best.