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Smart Storytellers and Skilled Songwriters

Janine Smith

Smart Storytellers and Skilled Songwriters by Janine Smith on October 4th, 2017

This week we said goodbye to one of America’s favorite songwriters and storytellers – Tom Petty. With his compact but powerful lyrics and hard-jangling rock, people loved Tom Petty as one of the preeminent songwriters of his generation.

Just like songwriters, we (people who work in marketing and communications) are also storytellers. Although we use different practices and language, there are a few things songwriters do that we should keep in mind when writing our own stories around client messages.

Here are three things about effective storytelling that I noticed when remembering Tom Petty and listening to his greatest hits:

Keep it short. Lyrics by nature have to be short, but are no less effective in storytelling than a whole novel. Include the necessary details for the story to make sense and to create an impact, but cut out the excess. Working hard to keep writing short helps us accomplish two things – it forces the us to choose the most effective words for our writing, and it helps us hold the audience’s attention from beginning to end.When I need to remind myself to keep it brief, I look back to this excerpt from The Elements of Style by White and William Strunk Jr.:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Combine literary devices with literal language. An often-used stat from psychologist Jerome Bruner

Bruner says that an audience is 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it has been wrapped in a story. I’m sure we all agree that stories are more memorable, but I believe that stories that engage the audience in thought by using metaphors, alliteration and other devices are even more effective. Obviously Tom Petty didn’t use hard facts in his stories, but his songs did make otherwise forgettable details memorable. Like for example, that Mulholland Drive,

Ventura Boulevard and the neighbourhood of Reseda are in Los Angeles County.

Make your audience feel something. The right lyrics combined with the right chords, melodies and tempo can create an amazing emotional experience for listeners. Like music, effective writing doesn’t just record feelings – it generates this feeling from within the reader or listener. For example, in American Girl Tom Petty doesn’t write “She remembered him and felt sad.” Instead he writes, “And for one desperate moment there / He crept back in her memory / God it’s so painful / Something that’s so close / And still so far out of reach.”

These are just a few quick notes I gathered, there are many more points of inspiration to be found not only in Tom Petty’s music, but any type of music. I look forward to finding more ways to improve my storytelling skills while reflecting on some of my favorite songwriters.


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