Archive for October, 2009

Improve Your Stories with a Little Schmaltz

I was helping a banker with a story he planned to tell as part of his presentation.   

“You know what this story needs?” I said. “This story needs some schmaltz.”

He gave me a confused look.

“You don’t know what schmaltz is?” I said. “It’s the good stuff. It’s the extra details and background that you add to the story that makes the story come to life.  All good stories have a little schmaltz.”

If you want your stories to sing, you’re going to need some schmaltz.

Schmaltz Adds Flavor

First a little background for those of you who, unlike me, weren’t blessed with a grandmother that spoke some Yiddish.

Schmaltz is the Yiddish word for rendered chicken fat.   For Jews who keep kosher, schmaltz substitutes for butter when cooking meat.  That’s important because, as everyone knows, butter makes everything taste better.

And if your  “bubbeh” (Yiddish for grandmother; rhymes with tubby) wanted to give you something delicious, she would spread  salted schmaltz on a bagel (Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it).  In other words, it adds flavor.

When I tell people to add schmaltz to a story, I mean that they need to add the flavoring that fills out the tale and makes it more interesting to the listener.

You “schmaltz up” a story by adding spicy details.

Let’s say that you’re trying to convince a partner to hire a new employee.   You might tell the story as follows:

I interviewed John the other day and was extremely impressed.  He was in the top 10 percent of his class at Harvard. He has work experience before business school in the entertainment industry and he’s outgoing. I think we need to hire him.

That’s fine. But it’s a little dry.  It doesn’t really give you a true feeling for John.  If you add some schmaltz– the fun details that make the story come to life – John’s true value comes to life.

I interviewed John the other day and I was  impressed. Of course, he was ranked 11 in a class of 100.  But he’s not just an academic tool.  When he first sat down in my office, he asked about my photograph showing me with Clint Eastwood.  We got into a long conversation about what he did for an entertainment talent agency in Hollywood.  He told me about attending parties with people like Michael Eisner, Jack Nicholson, and Ron Howard.  He really drove the conversation. It was impressive.

The schmaltzy details about how he started and drove the conversation bring to life the idea that he is extremely outgoing.

Of course You don’t Want too Much Schmaltz

One of the challenges with schmaltz is how much to add.  Too much schmaltz can be distracting in a story.  Let’s say that you were trying to get your partner to hire John and added too much schmaltz.  It might sound something like this.

I interviewed John the other day and I was  impressed. Of course, he was ranked 11 in a class of 100.  But he’s not just an academic tool.  When he first sat down in my office, he asked about my photograph showing me with Clint Eastwood. Then we got into a long conversation about what he did for an entertainment talent agency in Hollywood.  He told me about attending parties with people like Michael Eisner, Jack Nicholson, and Ron Howard.  He told me about a time he went to a basketball game with Sean Penn and Penn told him about his favorite musicians. It turns out that Sean Penn loves Yanni and Billy Joel. Who knew?

The extra details about Sean Penn are probably too much schmaltz.  Those details are gossipy. But they do not add much about the worldliness that makes John attractive as a candidate.  The details also drag out the story.

Ultimately, how much schmaltz to add is a judgment call that takes practice.

Next time you tell a story,  don’t just narrate the dry events.  Fill it out with a little schmaltz. You’re bubbeh will be proud.

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Thursday, October 29th, 2009