Guest post: A songwriting tip straight from “Mad Men”

Guest post by Jeff Shattuck:

I believe creativity demands limits. To create with no goal, no clear or even blurry idea of what you’re after, no way of telling whether you’ve succeeded or failed is a hopeless, thankless, and possibly even meaningless task. At least it is for me. And in song writing, especially for lyrics, I create limits for myself using a technique I borrowed from the advertising industry.

An ad-friendly songwriting technique even Don Draper would love

If you’ve ever worked in an ad agency, as I have for nearing 20 years, you are no doubt familiar with a little document called the creative brief. If you have been spared the craziness of the land of “madmen”, let me briefly explain what a creative brief is:

A brief is a one page document that tells the creative team (copywriter, art director) what exactly they need to create, why and for whom. The most important part of the brief is the Key Message, the one thing that the ad campaign needs to communicate in order to persuade people to take some sort of action. With a good, clear Key Message, the creative team can focus all their energy on how to say something, as apposed to having to split their brains between what to say and how best to say it.

“This song is about…”

In songwriting, you can use a similar technique. Once you have your basic idea, usually a line of some sort, write that line at the top of your page, spew out some lyrics and chords, and then stop. And before you go any further, spend a fair bit of time completing the sentence “This song is about ___________________.” To complete the sentence, be specific, write prose not poetry and think Hemingway instead of Wordsworth. Keep it short. Once you have your sentence, your Key Message, you can focus all your energy on how to best express it, rather than bounce between “that’s a cool line” and “wait, what’s this song about?” Equally important, having this sentence at the top of the page will help keep you  motivated because you won’t be wandering aimlessly.

One of the first songs I wrote using this technique was Here Comes the Weather. I had the title, but as I worked on the lyrics, I kept wandering off on tangents, and so finally I sat down and wrote out “This song is about two people who are at a tipping point in a fight and need to stop before permanent damage is done.” Once I had that, honing and polishing the lyrics was actually pretty easy.

Try the creative brief-approach — or not.

If anyone out there tries this technique, I hope it works for you. If not, I totally understand. It’s a pretty literal, sequential approach and for a lot of people I know that even a little structure is too much let alone a complete process. But for me, it has played a huge role in helping me to go from never being able to really finish a song to having more songs than I have time (or money!) to record. Oh, and there was the brain injury, but that’s another post.

Jeff Shattuck is a songwriter, blogger, adman and brain injury patient. His blog, Cerebellum Blues, is a chronicle of his journey.

  • Lizzie

    Hey Guys! Check out the American Songwriter Magazine Lyric Contest. Win a Grand Prize trip to Nashville for a dream co-writing session with Music Row writer and record your demo! Deadline Jan 25th.


  • Pingback: Focus and Finish Your Song by Deciding on a Clear Key Message()

  • I think you’re onto something cool with how marketing and songwriting interact. Earlier this week I heard a quote about the importance of a sales pitch, and I realized that in writing a song, the first verse is basically a sales pitch, inviting the listener to “buy” into the chorus.


  • Joe

    We’ve got a Songwriter Sketchbook you might be interested in. If you can’t find it at your local Guitar Center, we apologize, but it’s always on sale at

  • I’m totally in agreement with you Jeff. I’ve heard a lot of seminars about writing songs for Church congregations, where it’s probably even more important that you don’t go off on a tangent and it’s saved my butt often. I’ve gone further recently and started mapping out what I want to say in each section too (as recommended by Jason Blume) which has also been helpful.

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