FREE Songwriting Workshop: Roadblock #6 – Show Me, Then Tell Me

This will be the last part in this series of FREE songwriting tips, in which I analyze your song by telepathy. That’s right, I don’t even have to hear your song or see your lyrics to make a suggestion about what roadblocks might be holding back your song.

Be sure to visit parts one, two, three, four and five for the full experience.

Front of the Class, Please

We all did it in elementary school: Show and Tell. We’d bring something special to school, stand up in front of the class, show our special object, and tell a story about it.

It was a nervous experience for most of us, exciting for some, but it gave us all something to talk about during recess.

Imagine, for a moment, that instead of Show and Tell, we stood up in front of the classroom and just did the Tell part. Now, imagine that we tried just doing the Show part. In both cases, the discussion at recess wouldn’t be nearly as exciting, but I’d suggest that as long as you could Show your object, your classmates would be more intrigued than if they just heard you Tell about it.

The Brains of the Operation

Here’s what’s going on: showing somebody an object, or even a picture of an object, excites the part of our brain which tries to relate what we’re seeing to something in our own experience, and failing that, our own imagination. We can take a listener on a journey by singing lines that describe the things we can see, hear, touch, taste, etc. But the Show only goes so far. Add the Tell, and you will shed the light on how you feel about your Show. Hearing about your feelings, without the Show, causes us to work harder to excite any part of our brain which would bring all of us to some shared experience worth discussing at recess.

Either presentation on its own is less powerful than both in combination. We need both experiences in a song, in order to evoke an emotional response.

Make Up Your Mind, Puppy, Do You Want In or Out?

Here is the mechanism for getting the Show and the Tell into your songwriting. It’s about writing from both perspectives: Internal and External.

A song which is entirely External would only deliver the Show: describing the setting in language which excites our sense memories, using sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, and the sense of our body and our body in motion.

For Example:

The rain falls hard, on the broken pavement
I walk alone, past shuttered doors and windows
My socks drink the water which seeps through holes in my shoes
My breath hangs weightless in the chilly air

It’s easy to read or hear those lines and to subsequently imagine being in the singer’s (wet) shoes. This is entirely External language – words which describe observable things in terms of our senses. What this language fails to describe is the singer’s reflection on the situation, the reason why we need to be drawn into the scene.

On the other hand, a song which is entirely Internal would only deliver the Tell: describing how you are responding to something, without helping me experience that something along with you.

For Example:

It’s the saddest of days
And it’s only going to get worse

I feel like leaving


I am untouchable
Nothing can get in my way
I am Superman

For certain, we’ve all had moments in which we have felt indescribably sad, or elated, but having another person simply tell us how sad they are does almost nothing to bring us to the same emotional state, other than to feel empathy for them. It’s not enough for your audience to feel empathy when you sing a song about sadness – for your sad song to be most compelling, you want the audience to share your sadness. For your elated song to truly reach your audience, you’ll want them to feel the same sense of elation.

Pair either of those Internal examples with the above example of External language, and suddenly it becomes easy to see how, as a listener of a song, we can be taken on a journey which excites our own sense memories and makes us feel a shared emotion with the singer.

As a starting point, consider using External language in your verses to set the scene, and Internal language in your chorus to explain what we will all feel together. Then, try combining External and Internal language within a single section of your song.

Give it a shot. Turn your songwriting Inside Out!

If you like what you read above, maybe you'd like to work with Allister at Tilted White Shed? Reach out through the Contact Us page.

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