Beware the Fire Hose!
As I try to imagine the second most important thing to consider when telling a good story, my mind immediately goes to ... the fire hose.

Now, I have seen zero evidence that "fire hose" is an industry accepted term. Mostly, I think I like to use it because I'm married to a firefighter. (No, really. I am.)

I'm going to assume you're not married to a firefighter, so you might rather think of it like this: Back in the days when we drank from water fountains instead of hermetically sealed water bottles, a water fountain was always a bit of an unknown.
Maybe the water level would be too low for comfort? I mean, even in the before times, we weren't desperate enough to suck metal to get a few molecules of H2O.

Maybe the water fountain would deliver just enough, so that your thirst would be quenched and you could go about your day? This was rare, but it did happen…

Or maybe the water pressure supplying the water fountain was so strong, the water would shoot up and pop you in the eye?

Most of us instinctively avoid the under powered water fountain. We know not to tell the story too slowly, for fear of our audience giving up and moving on.

But we're much less naturally inclined to avoid the fire hose.

But the truth is...
Telling a story too quickly is just as dangerous as telling it too slowly.
Are you subscribed to Narrative Beat yet?
Subscribe now!
Most of the time, when you ask someone to tell you their story, you're gonna get the fire hose. They tell you the highlights:

This happened.

And then this happened.

And then this happened.

And then a bunch of other things happened ... none of which are very interesting.

Some people can go on and on like this forever. They'll touch on all of the plot points you've written down on your interview plan, but they won't give you enough of those rich details you need to tell a compelling story.

So how do you get your interview subject to slow down? It's simple.

Ask a silly question.

Really!

If someone's speeding through a story, pick a detail that's interesting to you. And just ask!

A few years ago, I was interviewing a writer who got married, donated a kidney to his wife's mother and then ran the best marathon of his life.

He was describing how he and his girlfriend got engaged while out for a run. But he was speeding through the story so quickly, it was difficult to capture the emotion of the moment. So at my first opportunity, I politely interrupted.


Steve Russolillo's Best Marathon, Only A Game, Nov. 25, 2016

Steve: I proposed to Shelly in March, end of March, 2015. Really, the first thought that came to mind was, 'It has to be running related, somehow.' It was a Sunday morning in Central Park, and I tried to make it as normal of a run as possible, like, 'Hey, Shell, let's go running this morning.' 'OK, fine.'

Karen: How'd you hide a ring in running clothes?

Steve: (laughs) So, I had it in the box and I put the box in this running jacket that I was wearing. And I thought that I caught her glancing at it. And in my head I kind of freaked out: 'Oh, my God, she knows something's up.'
Now, I think we can all agree that this was not a make-it-or-break-it question in a story about kidney donation. But not only did it give me a nice emotional detail to insert into the narrative, it also signaled to Steve that I was interested in the little details. He slowed down and started drawing me into the story.

The "silly question" is a powerful tool, and it works in all types of situations. I was talking with Edward Bell, who was married to the late Esther Williams, an actress known for her "aquamusicals" -- lavish Hollywood productions centered around Esther's swimming ability. (No, really. She was amazing. You gotta check her out.)

Edward is a natural storyteller. He's got a big, bass voice, and he knows how to use it. He was telling me about the day he and Esther first met, and something about the story just felt ... practiced? It was as if he had told the story a million times and had begun to lose his emotional attachment to the moment.

(Which, if you think about it, is probably exactly what happened. If you married your Hollywood crush, you'd probably tell the story a lot, too!)

Edward and Esther met at a restaurant. It was a business lunch. And Esther was known for her perfect, hourglass figure. So I asked Edward the first question that popped into my mind.
Esther Williams Trophy, Only A Game, Feb. 7, 2020

Karen: Do you remember what Esther ate at that lunch?

Edward: (hearty laugh) I don't remember anything else about the lunch. I think I was so taken by the fact that — it wasn't that I loved movie stars, I knew a lot of them. But it was — she was extraordinary. She was so charming and bright that I-I just, I was so taken with her
By asking Edward a question he wasn't expecting, I got him out of the story he tells at every dinner party and into an authentic moment of self reflection.

If someone mentions that they were listening to the radio, I'll ask what song was playing. If they tell me they put on their favorite outfit, I'll ask them to describe it for me. If they mention taking a long walk, I'll ask what the weather was like.

Many -- maybe even most -- of these details won't make it into the final story. But by asking the question, I've signaled to my interview subject that I'm interested in the little things. Once they understand what I want, they're likely to start adding the details that are the most meaningful to them. (Which, as you might imagine, can be infinitely more interesting than the silly questions that pop into my head during the interview.)

Eventually, you're going to want to collect these details into distinct anecdotes and then arrange those anecdotes along a logical -- usually chronological -- narrative arc. But I promise myself that I'd keep this week's missive short-ish, and those are lessons for another day.

Karen
Resources I Love
How Your Brain Responds to Stories
This has nothing to do with "silly questions," but a friend recently shared this TED Talk. It does a great job of explaining the power of storytelling.