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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Cold Calling Advice from the Late William Safire

William Safire
William Safire

New York Times Columnist  Maureen Dowd has an interesting column today about her colleague William Safire, the conservative pundit who died last Sunday.

What caught my eye was a little bit of cold-calling advice from Safire.

What do you do when someone at the White House won’t call you back?  According to Safire,  ” . . . leave them a single-word message about what you wanted to talk about: “Malfeasance.”

What an interesting idea!

One of the biggest problems with cold calls is the set up and the failure to get to the point. But what if we made it a goal to leave one-word cold calling messages?

“Hello this is Joey Asher with Speechworks. Win! Call me at 404-266-0888.”

Too short?

Think I’d get any call backs?

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Drive Home the Point of Your Story at the End

One of the biggest mistakes that speakers make in telling stories is not driving home the point to the listener at the end.

I was working last week with a college student who was preparing for a round of job interviews. He had a nice story about how his athletic achievements in college showed that he would be a hard worker. He told a story about getting up before classes for two-hour long practice sessions and then having two-hour long practice sessions after classes as well. It was a compelling story.

The problem was that when he finished the story, he didn’t drive home the point with what it all means for the listener — in this case the prospective employer.

He needed to end the story by saying, “My point is that I’m not afraid of hard work and I’ll put in the hours at your company needed to be successful.”

The point of your story isn’t always obvious to your listener. That’s why you need to drive it home at the end.

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Lesson from Don Hewitt on the Power of Stories

Don Hewitt, the creator of “60 Minutes”, died yesterday.  Of course, he was a television legend who reinvented the way television news is delivered. But at Speechworks we remember him for a story we like to tell to workshop participants.

Hewitt was once at an event where he was answering questions. Someone asked him what he thought accounted for the success of “60 Minutes.”

Hewitt paused and then said, “Four little words that every child knows, ‘Tell me a story.'”

Hewitt’s point was that on “60 Minutes” the emphasis was always on making sure that there was a simple narrative.

We make the same point with our clients.  If you want to hold people’s attention, tell them a story.

By the way, Hewitt went on to name his memoir “Tell me a story.”

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Public Speaking Lessons from My New iPhone

I know I’m not the first person to say this. But I’m in love with my new iPhone. I can’t stop looking at it.  And I can’t help but think about the lessons it has to teach about public speaking.

First, the iPhone is so easy to use. The Apple guys have worked hard at making everything on it easy. Want to check the weather? Easy.  Want to record a voice mail?  Easy. Want to hear your music?  Easy.  Want to make a phone call? Easy.  That’s not to say that making it all easy has been simple to accomplish.  There’s a lot of engineering blood, sweat, and tears behind all that “easiness”.

A good speaker should be the same way — easy. By that I mean listener friendly.  For the listener, the message should come across as clean and simple.  “Here are the three simple things that you need to come away with.”  That’s not to say that making a presentation listener-friendly is simple.  It’s not. Good speakers work extremely hard at simplifying their message, disciplining themselves to come up with the three core messages. It takes a lot of work to hone a good story. But it shouldn’t feel that way to the listener.

Second, the iPhone is interactive fun. The thing quickly becomes an integral part of your life.  Of course, there is the phone and the email. But it’s also a wonderful toy with apps galore. If you’re a sports nut, then there are dozens of ways to feed your addiction. If you’re a music nut, same thing. There is a Scrabble app that I’m dying to get.

Similarly, a great speaker is interactive and fun. Great speakers grab listeners and make them feel personally involved.  They find ways to interact with the audience, tell stories, take questions, ask questions and generally turn the presentation into an conversational, participatory event.

Third, the iPhone works. By that I mean that it’s very clear on it’s core mission and accomplishes it quite well.  I would have no use for a device that could get me the ball scores but couldn’t make a clear phone call. The iPhone wouldn’t be much use if the email and calendar were hard to use.  But those things work beautifully.  And the iPhone sets up with little problem (at least mine did).

A good speaker is the same way. She has a clear sense of her core mission — to connect with the audience and move them. Great speakers understand that all the clever stories and amazing visuals mean nothing if you don’t get the listeners to take away a few core ideas and move them to action.  Great speakers understand that a wonderful speaking style is of no value if the audience doesn’t get the message and know what to do next.

Finally, the iPhone is absolutely beautiful to look at. I can’t stop looking at mine.  I was at lunch yesterday with two architects that were praising the thing as a model of design.

Similarly, great speakers speak with the kind of style that makes listeners want to watch. Great speakers have energy in their voice and passion in their face and eyes. That excitement makes their audience pay attention.

I wonder if there’s an app to deal with stage-fright?

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Podcast: Interview with Star Architect Phil Freelon on Winning the Architectural Pitch

Phil Freelon
Phil Freelon

No one needs to be told that business in the architecture, construction and real estate world these days is tight.  There aren’t many chances to compete for business. The few chances that you do get, you want to win.

That’s why I was so excited to get the chance to interview Phil Freelon, whose firm The Freelon Group has won several big presentations lately.  Earlier this year, Phil’s firm teamed with HOK here in Atlanta to win the competition to design the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Just a month later, Phil’s firm won another trophy commission, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Earlier this week I interviewed Phil about what it takes for architects to win these highly competitive opportunities.

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Remembering the Power of the Pause

This week, I’ve been putting the finishing touches on the audio version of my book “How to Win a Pitch.”  It’s been a lot of time at the recording studio. And during that time, I’ve regained appreciation for the power and importance of the pause.

In listening to the initial recording of the book, the biggest mistake I made was not pausing long enough at certain points.

For example, I would be reading a chapter and would come to a section where there is a new thought and a headline to introduce that thought. It might be  “Make Your Points Sound Like Substantive Bumper Stickers.” But I wouldn’t pause to emphasize the headline. Instead, I would just read through without hesitating.

Of course, the problem is that the listener isn’t reading the book and can’t see the headline. Since when you’re listening to a book — as opposed to reading it – there are no visual cues that it’s a new section. The listener can’t know it’s a new section. It can lead to confusion.   So we had to go back and add in the pauses as a way of creating a clear sense of sections and order.

It was just a reminder to me that sometimes the most important communication tool you have is closing your mouth and saying nothing.

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Rethinking that Native American Proverb


A couple of days ago, I wrote a post about the Native American proverb: “Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live my heart forever.”

And I still like it.  But the more I think about it, the more trouble I have.  I only buy a third of it.

“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn . . . .” You’re kidding right?  If you tell me the facts, I won’t learn. I’ll forget.

“Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. . . .” I know this sounds cynical. But I have no way of evaluating the truth if you just tell it to me. The only way I know the truth is if I trust you or if I experience it myself.

“But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever. . . . ” That part I believe.

But it’s nice poetry.

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Great Quote About the Value of A Story

“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”

I found this quote on Twitter. Searching the internet, I’ve found it several times, usually described as a Native American Proverb.

It pretty much says it all in terms of the value of a story.

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Five Ways to “De-Commoditize” Your Business in a Presentation

“Our business has really become quite commoditized. The only thing anyone cares about is price. That makes it very hard for us to distinguish ourselves during a presentation.”

Those are the words of a general manager of a large division of a major software company. We were having breakfast and discussing his business.

I hear the same thing over and over again from business after business. Bankers, accountants, lawyers, construction firms, high tech vendors etc. Everyone thinks they’re in a commodity business.

But let’s be clear about something. No business is a commodity if a major component of the delivery of the business involves some level of personal service.  Even if you’re in a true commodity business like soybeans, the quality of  human interaction will set one firm apart from the rest.

What does this mean for a sales presentation?  You have to build your presentation around the things that set you apart from the competition. That is usually the things that emphasize the quality of personal service the prospect will receive from you.

There are five things in a presentation that will set your firm apart by forcing the listener to focus on the human differences in a firm.

  1. Focusing your message on a business solution: By focusing your message on solving a problem, you show that you have carefully listened for their needs.
  2. Keeping the message simple. By delivering a simple message, you show that you understand that communication is important in any business.  That’s a part of service.
  3. Speaking with passion: If you seem passionate, you get your prospect excited and you seem like it will be fun to work with you.
  4. Leaving lots of time for Q&A. By taking lots of questions, you highlight your ability to solve problems.
  5. Rehearse: Lots of practice shows and demonstrates a committment that will set you apart from the competitors who didn’t care enough to practice.

Many people think of their business today as a commodity. But if you focus on the human differentiators in your next presentation, you’ll set yourself apart from the competition.

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