Thursday, March 12, 2009

Getting Shticky With It!

A friend of mine is a non-Jewish lawyer in New York City. Recognizing the career limitations of being a cucumber in a world of kosher pickles I've spent a good couple of months trying to teach him conversational Yiddish. "Suppose you're in a meeting," I told him over the phone, "and the room is really really hot, just shout: "is anyone else schtvitzing in here? It's so hot I could just about shluf." [Translation: Its so hot in here I could just about fall asleep."] My thinking was that even if he was about as unkosher as unkosher can be - dropping the Y Bomb now and again wouldn't hurt his cause and may in fact get him noticed by a senior partner. It's the same reason I am trying to convince my JD/MBA friend Julie that she say the following at her law interviews: "my grandfather actually tried to kill Hitler. Ya know that guy Stauffenberg? They were really tight." Know your audience people…

Yiddish, although an almost dead language, is still a tongue that everyone should know a shitckle of. And by shtickle I mean a little of. Why? Well Yiddish actually adds emotions to words without using adjectives (this is why Jewish people are so efficient. We don’t even need adjectives). In Yiddish a penis is a shmuck, how angry is that word though. "Have you met Shelley’s new boyfriend? – He’s total shmuck..." This sounds a lot more emphatic then: "Have you met Shelley’s new boyfriend? Total penis." Anyway my new favourite Yiddish word of the week is shtick. Shtick? Shtick is Yiddish for gimmick, or a piece of a showbiz routine; defined in one dictionary as a "person's idiosyncratic performance". In a sentence: "Did you see his skit on Saturday Night Live? People just love his shtick."

But shtick – shtick is more then just an idiosyncratic performance. Shtick is actually a business term.

A couple of months ago, while organizing a conference and searching for a keynote speaker, someone suggested a man by the name of Keith Ferazzi. Several years back Ferazzi published a piece of non-fiction: Never Eat Lunch Alone, and Other Secrets to Success One Relationship at a Time. The book was a fairly big hit and Ferazzi became known as the guy who never eats lunch alone. Subsequently Ferazzi parlayed his MIND BLOWING REVELATION [sic] into a profitable career as a networking and relationship guru. For example, Keith was very happy to speak my conference, for the low low price of $25,000 (plus flight, hotel and other incidentals). Because I was affiliated with a non-profit Keith's people were willing to negotiate, however. Thanks Keith. You may never eat lunch alone, but you're certainly never going to eat lunch with this hombre; I’ve never paid to play and am certainly not starting to pay at 26...

Never eating lunch alone is what I would call Keith's shtick. He has a blog: And from this one book about how to secure lunch dates Keith is still peddling the same line about how to build relationships over lunch years after the fact. Shtick in fact refers to popularization of business-lite books that provide "business-speak" to the masses. The shticky author turns a simple, usually just one sentence, statement on how to improve your life, business or career, into a witty catchphrase and suddenly finds himself on the New York Times bestseller list proselytizing business readers to "think outside the box", or to "value outliers". Before you know it - you and your shtick have been turned into a syndicated column and you're charging $25,000 for a speaking fee. Shtick is good.

Shtick is overgrown pop culture self-help lite. Prolific thinkers come up with a relatively simple idea and suddenly, with proper marketing, its been turned into the second coming. This isn't to say that shtick is always stupid, but - is there anything groundbreaking in a shticky novels or are they simply packaged and decently written? I’d argue for the latter, and that well that is the power of shtick. It packages things you probably already know into succinct and catchy easy to read morsels of goodness; it’s brilliant by association. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – shtick for increasing your brainpower without actually increasing your brainpower! French Women Don't Get Fat - shtick for people trying to lose weight! How to Win Friends and Influence People - shtick for people who can't seem to manage personal relationships!

So what makes good shtick? (IE how can you, dear reader, get on the speaking engagement circuit?):

1) Keep It Simply Shtick (KISS):
Never Eat Lunch Alone. - Yes that's right - Keith Ferazzi - is teaching you how to never eat lunch alone and that in order to be successful you need to build relationships. That's it - Ferazzi is not discussing the atom bomb or dissecting the rise of Hitler. Scratch below the surface of most shticky books and you're not going to find much, because there often isn't much there. He's Just Not That Into you for example teaches readers that the really cute guy they've been chasing (and who doesn't return their call), actually doesn't like you! How is this groundbreaking? Please, I realized he wasn't that into me when he broke up with me on a subway platform - but MILLIONS of people have read that book; I even own the hardcopy and have highlighted mundane passages for future reading. I bought it into it.

2) When your shtick isn't so simple, just dumb it down:
There is higher quality shtick, which is actually relatively interesting and thought provoking. Take Richard Florida's ideology behind the Creative Class. I'll admit I find it fascinating, it’s a fairly interesting concept and there are so many graphs and charts in his books – I’m not arguing with his research. And yet, the Creative Class is still shtick. Heck it landed Florida in Esquire Magazine. The problem of course with shtick is that shtick can outgrow the academic. By becoming shtick - the Creative Class - knows no bounds. It becomes known for its shtick, i.e. drinking latte’s in gentrified factories and not for much else. Even academic shtick is in danger of becoming a buzzwords. Practically everything in Toronto is now either a part of or aspiring to be the Creative Class.

3) When in Doubt Get Shticky With It
If you don't think of yourself of an academic and are worried you can't develop your own shtick, think again! Good shtick can come from an analogy, or a personal experience. One great albeit shticky presenter I saw compared the business world to climbing a mountain. She was great, she made jokes along the lines of: “I’m used to harsh environments. I’m a forty something single woman in San Francisco.” Don’t think she didn’t use that joke at every speaking engagement across the country (a key factor of shtick – its adaptable to every major city in North America) and don’t think the audience didn’t yuk it up. Shtick isn't about the research remember - it’s about what you've done and accomplished, but more importantly about how you've packaged it with wit and sass.

So go dear friends – develop your shtick, get on that public speaking bandwagon. Charge Jono $25,000 for a keynote speaking gig.

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