A Creative Person’s Secret Weapon

Adapted from the upcoming book Songwriting Demystified

By Christopher Kent

The popular television program Saturday Night Live is now at the end of its 48th year on television (as I write this). As everyone knows, viewers (at least on the East Coast) see the show live, as it’s happening. Not surprisingly, a dress rehearsal of the show takes place in front of a live audience a few hours before the live broadcast. You might think the purpose of the dress rehearsal is to help make the cast members and guest host familiar with their lines and the scene changes, but that’s not the only reason they do it.

They do it because it’s the only sure way to find out what the audience thinks is funny.

After 40 years, you might assume that Lorne Michaels (creative force behind the show) would know what’s funny. But the reality is, nobody is a mind reader—not even Lorne. For example, back in 1986 the show had a huge turnover in cast members. One of the new cast members was Dana Carvey, and he was going to do a skit called The Church Lady on the first show of the new season. Lorne was skeptical that the audience would find it funny, so he scheduled it to be the last skit of the show at the dress rehearsal.

It got the biggest laughs of the entire show. So, Lorne moved it up to be the opening skit of the broadcast show. It went on to be considered one of the funniest recurring skits in the history of SNL.

Experienced comedians also understand that audience reaction is impossible to predict. When Chris Rock appears before a stadium-sized crowd and brings the house down, his material isn’t being tried out for the first time. He tries out all of his ideas in small clubs to find out what works and what doesn’t. The guy’s a comic genius, but even he can’t tell what will work without trying it out ahead of time.

The Creativity Connection

So: What does this have to do with creating art? Everything.

To understand the connection to creating any kind of art (including creating a song, something I do all the time) you first have to understand that unless you’re creating art purely for your own enjoyment, you’re playing a game that involves other people. You’re trying to create something that will cause your audience to have an experience when they see, hear or otherwise experience what you’ve created—an experience that they’ll like, leading them to reward you with applause or praise (or maybe a publishing or recording contract). It’s not just about creating something you think is great; it’s about communicating with your audience and getting back the reaction you want.

That’s where the potential pitfall comes in. No matter how incredibly talented and experienced you may be, you can’t know ahead of time how an audience will react to your creation. Even the most successful creative folks out there can misjudge what the reaction to their latest work will be. Long after he was already a successful recording artist, Billy Joel thought the song he had recently written and recorded, Just the Way You Are, wouldn’t be a popular song with his fans. He didn’t even want to put it on his album, The Stranger. But guess what? It became one of the two best-loved songs of his career (along with Piano Man), and it won the Grammy awards for both Song and Record of the Year in 1979.

Not being able to know for sure how your audience will react raises a big practical problem for a creative person. Once you’ve knocked yourself out creating something and you publicly display it to an audience, you’ll get plenty of feedback. However, no matter how smart or experienced you are, there’s always a good chance the reaction won’t be what you were hoping for.

For example, if you’re a songwriter, the song you thought was so funny may not even elicit a smile. A line of lyrics you didn’t think twice about may surprise you by offending people. Someone may say, “Hey, that melody sounds just like the melody from such-and-such a song that was a big hit two years ago.” Or a song you’ve written that you think is really important and moving may not elicit any reaction at all. Or, you might get an unexpected good reaction: Something in your song that you didn’t think was very important might blow people away and draw high praise, and you’ll be frustrated that you didn’t make that the focus of the song. This same potential problem—not always being able to predict how your audience is going to react—applies to anything you create, whether it’s an article you write, a talk you give, a video you make or anything else that will be experienced by other people.

If you present your finished work to an audience, and the reaction isn’t what you expected, you’ll have two problems. First, if you want to figure out why you’re not getting the expected reaction, most people won’t be able to tell you. Second, once you’ve finished something and put your heart and soul into it, you’re not going to enjoy going back and reworking it. So you end up with a creation that’s not getting the response you wanted, for reasons that are not clear, and you really don’t feel like going back and changing it. (The latter will probably be true even if you have a good idea why it isn’t working.)

This may sound like a pessimistic scenario, but it’s not; it’s a common experience when you create things and present them to the world. If you write by yourself, with no feedback until you’ve decided your work is finished, it’s inevitable: Sooner or later, your work won’t get the reaction you expected, and if it’s a finished piece of work, you’ll have a problem.

The Feedback Factor

Luckily, there’s a very simple solution to this problem: get feedback while you’re still working on the thing you’re creating. You do this by finding one or two people whose opinion you trust, and ask them to give you feedback while you’re still working on your creation. If you pick a feedback person (or persons) who have reasonably good judgment, they’ll tell you early in the game whether or not the thing you’re creating works the way you want it to. If something makes perfect sense to you, but other people have no idea what you mean, they’ll tell you. If you left out some important detail in your story, they’ll tell you. If you’re writing a song and you borrowed the melody from a well-known song without realizing it, they’ll tell you. If you said something offensive without realizing it, you’ll find out before you go onstage and offend large numbers of people, losing out on future opportunities as a result.

The list of things that can happen without a creator realizing it is long. Having a feedback person keeps you aware of the effect your communication will have on others, and it does it at a point in the creative process that’s useful. Because your work isn’t finished yet, you can make changes without feeling like you’re having to rewrite something you thought you were finished with.

Many professional songwriters understand this. The reason Billy Joel did end up putting Just the Way You Are on his album was that he played it for a couple of other artists, who flipped out and told him it was going to be a huge hit. (That feedback changed the course of his career.) Another songwriting example: When Paul McCartney woke up from a dream with the music for the song Yesterday in his head, he was smart enough to be concerned that he might have unintentionally stolen it from someone. So he played it for a number of his music business friends to get feedback before recording it. They reassured him that they had not heard the music before. (It went on to be one of the most-recorded and best-selling songs ever written.)

Making Feedback Work

There are a couple of important things to keep in mind when working with a feedback person.

1. There’s a difference between feedback and co-creating. Co-writing involves providing creative input; feedback is simply information about the effect your creation is having on the observer. Your feedback person acts as a test audience, not a co-creator. (It’s the same as when a comedian tries out his material in a small club before performing it in front of 20,000 people—those small audiences don’t get to claim co-writing credit.) So unless you really want to co-create, don’t ask the feedback person to solve your creative problems. Their job is to help you find problems, not solve them. Solving them is your job.

Of course, if you are working with a co-creator, he or she should also be acting as a feedback person—that’s one of the advantages of co-writing. But even if you’re writing solo, you definitely should get feedback from a trusted source before you finish your work. Without that feedback, you WILL eventually have some unhappy experiences.

2. Pick your feedback person (or persons) carefully. Don’t pick someone who will automatically like everything you do—you’ll just be wasting your time. Admiring mothers, fathers, spouses or siblings are a bad choice for this reason, and you should steer clear of anyone who looks at you with hero worship in his or her eyes. (Of course, picking your worst enemy is a bad idea, too.)

If you can find someone who likes the same kind of creative thing you do, that’s good. Being well-educated is a lot less important than having common sense. You want to find someone who will experience your work the way an average person would. You definitely want the person to be honest (in a nice way!)

And of course, your feedback person has to be available, too. If you only see the person once a year, it won’t be of much help. A reasonably intelligent friend who shares your taste in the type of thing you’re creating is a good bet.

3. Be aware that you may not agree with everything your feedback person says. That’s okay. (Just be nice about disagreeing!) The important thing is to realize that the reaction you get from your feedback person is the same reaction you’ll get from some part of your potential audience. If you pick your person wisely, their reaction will be representative of a large part of your potential audience. If you don’t choose your feedback person wisely, their reaction will still be legitimate, but it may only represent the response you’re going to get from a very small chunk of your audience.

Even if you don’t agree with everything your feedback person says, treat it as useful information, bearing in mind that some number of other people in your audience will react the same way. Then, use your own judgment to decide whether or not you’re OK with some people having that reaction. If you can live with that, then you may not want to make any changes. But if you really don’t want your audience to have the same reaction, it’s probably worth making changes to your creation to alter whatever is triggering that reaction.

4. Don’t shy away from feedback! It’s easy to simply avoid asking for feedback, or worse, to make it obvious that you don’t want negative feedback. If you do that, no one will tell you what they really think. Remember, you’re going to get feedback in some form sooner or later. It’s a lot less painful when you get it sooner. Then you can use it to help make sure your work will be a real success.

Your Best Tool

So: Is a good feedback person really the most important tool in a creative person’s toolbox? In my experience it is. Many things can help you be creative, but none of them will enable you to gauge how other people are going to react to what you’re creating. A good feedback person will act as a warning system, letting you find out early in the game when something in your work isn’t triggering the audience experience you thought it would. A good feedback person will keep you from coming out with seriously flawed work, and maybe even keep you from throwing away a terrific piece of work that you didn’t realize was a true gem! That’s a powerful tool, indeed.

Copyright 2023 by Christopher Kent. All rights reserved.