Sing Out Like Susan Boyle: Five Lessons to Help You Find Your Signature Story

Nothing is more beautiful than an authentic voice that comes straight from the heart and soul of another human being. I can’t think of a better illustration of this fact than Susan Boyle’s first appearance (2009) on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent, which electrified the audience and, eventually, the world. Even if you’ve watched this video a dozen times, as I have, watch it again.

Susan has a signature story. She comes from a village in Scotland so small that she even forgot the name “village” while waiting to perform. She obviously did not impress the audience or the judges at first glance. She described herself as someone who was unemployed and had never been married or even been kissed.

She looked the opposite of a diva in every way — clumsy mannerisms, frumpy dress, overweight body. When she said she was 47 years old, the audience laughed at her.

If this were the Gong Show of the 1980’s, she might have been gonged off the stage before she opened her mouth.

But then she did open her mouth. Within twenty seconds, she started bringing the audience to their feet. The song she sang, “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserable was perfect.

Here are five lessons  from Susan’s story to help you create our own personal essay that sings.

1. Be yourself. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Susan wanted to be a diva, to move people with her music, but she didn’t focus on trying to change her dumpy image (that came later). She looked and acted like a woman from the village. In the end, her authenticity yielded an amazing surprise. Had she somehow managed to lose thirty pounds, squeeze into a designer gown, and have her hair and face lifted, she would still have wowed the audience, but she could never have been Cinderella. And the audience would not have identified with her the way they did.

2. Laugh at yourself. When she couldn’t remember the word “village,” Susan didn’t get all flustered. She  just kept going. She didn’t hang her head when she said, she’d never been kissed. She laughed and said, “Shame.”

3. Share your feelings and go down deep. Susan chose the right song. The dream of Fantine from the musical Les Miserables was really her own dream. As soon as she gave that dream her all, the audience was on its feet applauding.

4. Tap into your audience’s dreams as you express your own. In the end, the judges recognize a great truth. We feel shame when our stereotypes and prejudices based on external appearances are revealed to us. But what we really want to feel is redemption. Susan Boyle forgave that audience before she sang to them, knowing that they could not see what mattered most about her until she showed them herself. The audience began by looking down on Susan. Soon, they were looking up to her, hanging on every note.

5. Find your own rhythm. Watch Susan’s face as she sings. She knows the audience is waiting for her to hit the high notes. So she pauses a milli-second to make them want it even more. When she finally explodes with passion, they do also.

From Singing to Writing

Moving from one art form to another may not always work exactly, but surely when you sit down to write an essay about your own life, you can find ways to apply the lessons above from Susan Boyle.

1. Think of the worst thing about yourself. In Susan’s case it was her looks and her age and her desire to be loved. Is there a secret you might prefer to hide? Not every secret should find its way into print. Start with a little one and find a way to reveal it. Focus on what embarrassed you in the past. Don’t overplay or underplay it. But if you don’t admit it, the reader may admire you but will not fall in love. We don’t give a fig about your accomplishments or your misery unless you come across as aware of yourself in all your complexity. Full out in front of us. Like Susan.

2. Even if you are writing about painful conflicts and injuries, don’t forget to keep a light tone.

3. Reveal your dreams. The reader wants to know why you write. Wants to feel it. Wants to be carried away by it.

4. If you, like me, have been taught the dangers of pride and of focusing on the self, re-frame that thought. Think of your work as serving a larger community. Nothing stimulates my own dream more than seeing you fully realize yours in print. I like to refer to this spiritual connection with the South African name “ubuntu.” If you can tap into this universal source of joy, you will have us singing too. Your pen has the power to heal wounds and stimulate goodness, even greatness, in others.

5. “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing!” When you have written and polished your best essay, read it aloud. You will hear and see things you missed by reading only in your head. Repeated words, unecessary clauses, and word order will all “sound” different to you. Read and tweak. Then read again. Practice your essay outloud in front of a group. When do their eyes glaze over? Do you ever have them on the edge of their seats? Like Susan and Duke Ellington, you’ve gotta have rhythm.

Okay. Now what did I miss? Watch the video again and either correct me or add to this list. I’m really interested in your ideas — and your stories.

Posted in

Shirley Showalter


  1. Byron on May 20, 2013 at 9:14 am

    Exquisite application of that iconic video, Shirley. Very timely for some writing I’m trying to do. Thanks for posting.

    • shirleyhs on May 20, 2013 at 11:21 am

      So glad to welcome you here, Byron. Isn’t that what Canadians say? 🙂 Hope you will find other resources here of use as you write.

  2. Sharon Lippincott on May 20, 2013 at 10:54 am

    Shirley, this may be your best post yet. “Nothing stimulates my own dream more than seeing you fully realize yours in print.” I have goosebumps! Awesome.

    • shirleyhs on May 20, 2013 at 11:23 am

      Thanks so much for pulling out the stops in your comment, Sharon. How very Susan Boyle-like. 🙂

      I know you know what I mean with that sentence. You have helped so many find their voices.

  3. Sharon Lippincott on May 20, 2013 at 10:55 am

    Oops. Clicked too soon. I have indeed watched that video lots of times, but had forgotten it. You gave it seven layers of depth I had not noticed or thought of. THANK YOU!

    • shirleyhs on May 20, 2013 at 11:26 am

      You’re very welcome.

  4. Marian Beaman on May 20, 2013 at 11:04 am

    My husband Cliff was so inspired by Susan that he pinned up a cartoon (flattering of course) he drew of her singing and then played her CD for days on end. Such is the nature of inspiration. It lights a fire or turns up a flickering pilot light.

    Sometimes the disparity between the gift and the vessel it is presented in has a special power to charm and inspire. I think that is what we recognize and salute in Susan Boyle.

    Add to your list of ideas? You said “. . . when you sit down to write an essay about your own life. . . .” That’s the thing! You have to sit down in your writing chair. Friends will call; even the laundry can look tempting. SIT DOWN in that chair and let it carry you away! I love my chair.

  5. shirleyhs on May 20, 2013 at 11:31 am

    You can tell Ciff I’ve been known to use pin-ups in that way also. 🙂

    And thanks for adding to the list of tips. One thing we don’t see is how many years Susan sang at local events and what she had to go through to be selected to be on the show. That’s the equivalent of paying your dues and sitting in your chair.

    As for the vessel and the gift, I agree. I watched some of her later performances on Youtube. For me, none of them contained the same magic even though she has every right to enjoy the best make-up, fashion, etc. I’m happy for her success but most grateful for this one video as a way to encourage the plain girl in all of us.

  6. Tina Barbour on May 20, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    I love that video, and I’m sure I have watched it at least a dozen times. The song is one of my favorites anyway, and to hear her sing it and to see the reaction of the audience and judges–it just did my heart good.

    You provide a wonderful list of things to consider as we’re writing. I’m struggling with writing about painful things and how to do so in a way that doesn’t turn off the reader or make me sound like a mere complainer. It’s hard.

    • shirleyhs on May 20, 2013 at 3:08 pm

      Dear Tina, my heart goes out to you in those last words. Writing is hard! And writing about pain is even harder.

      I wonder whether there’s any more wisdom to extract from the video . . . ? That light tone I highlighted does not come with the first experience of story telling. I’ll bet there were tears before that event and probably have been some since also.

      So, I think it’s important to write without thought of the audience at first. Just try your best to describe what it feels like to be you or what it felt like in the past. Keep probing the layers. As you go down deep under the surface pain to naming your fears, you are likely to connect with universal fear. Then I would recommend a developmental editor for getting the tone and the themes just right. Keep going! Or as Marian says, stay in the chair.

  7. Tina Barbour on May 20, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    Thank you, Shirley. What you said about “universal fear” struck a chord. I will remember that the fears I have are stemming from the universal fears that we all can relate to in some way.

    • shirleyhs on May 20, 2013 at 5:32 pm

      So true, Tina. Perhaps those who are most sensitive to fear become the teachers of the rest of us. I know that has happened for me. Whenever we can find some social good for our fears, they start to get smaller.

  8. kate stoltzfus on May 20, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    It was fun to watch this clip again! It always blows me away. These are great tips thanks for sharing.

    • shirleyhs on May 20, 2013 at 6:13 pm

      Always a great day when you show up here, Kate. Glad you liked.

  9. Joanne Hess Siegrist on May 20, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    Thanks Shirley for today’s entry. While I never heard of Susan Boyle I love today’s u-tube. Susan reminds me of my Grandma Hess, a wonderful, free spirited being and the two women even look alike. “All on the table mode” with gut honestly is equally electrifying.

    Here’s a favorite release from my Heritage Watcher’s class: a long braided rug sketched above these words: Bad memories… negative happenings. Hidden under a rug, it grows like a deadly cancer. Celebrate the good… deal with the bad. Forgive and forget. Forgive – yes. Forget – never. Live and learn.

    Recently while in Switzerland a close Swiss friend gifted me these words: “You know how “to lay all on the table” and still be positive, hopeful, and kind. Wherever you go, flowers start blooming for you are a great peace builder.”

    • shirleyhs on May 21, 2013 at 2:17 pm

      Ha! I loved that Susan Boyle reminded you of your grandma.

      And what a beautiful compliment — that you are a peacemaker who makes the flowers bloom.

      Now there’s an epitaph to aspire to!

  10. diane on May 21, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Great advice! Thanks! And thanks for getting me to watch that corny (but beautiful) YouTube again.

  11. shirleyhs on May 21, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Hi, Diane, it is corny, isn’t it? And my guess is that the producers hyped the corniness factor on purpose. But they definitely found a diamond in the rough. One of the things I’ve learned in life is that it’s always better if people under-estimate you than the other way round. 🙂

  12. Heather Marshall on May 22, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Wonderful post. Thanks. I love offering workshops that help people access their own stories and then develop ways of living more wholeheartedly. Nice to see the direct connection to writing here.

  13. shirleyhs on May 22, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    Hi Heather, welcome to this space. I recognized that phrase “whole hearted” and then went to your blog. Sure enough, Brene Bown has inspired you also.

    Hope you can use this post in your own work. Come back and tell us about it.

  14. Richard Gilbert on May 22, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    What a great list of attributes. If someone does do all this, she will succeed for sure. I love your frame for this advice, too.

  15. shirleyhs on May 22, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    Thanks, Richard. Frames make all the difference, don’t they?

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