Keep your storyteller on track.

One of my favorite Mark Twain stories is called, “His Grandfather’s Old Ram.” (I have a recording of Hal Holbrook performing this – it’s a hoot.) The tale features an elderly gentleman who starts to tell a yarn about a fellow’s encounter with a rather cantankerous ram. Unfortunately, the storyteller keeps digressing from this account to another and then another and then another – all hilarious, until he falls asleep without ever finishing his original story. Now, this makes for great reading and engrossing theatre – but you can’t afford to let your video biography interviews spin out of control like this. You can waste time and tape (or memory) and wind up not getting the material you were after in the first place.

So, if you have a storyteller who you know is prone to meandering off onto tangents, what can you do to keep him focused and on track?

Do some homework. Before the interview, chat with your storyteller and discuss the subjects you’d like to cover during your session. If you need to, ask him for some background information related to the stories you want to capture. Also, ask him whether there’s anything he feels is important to relate.

Create your questions. Use the information from the step above to draft a list of questions. Show them to your storyteller so that he can see exactly what you plan to ask. This will help him to mentally prepare for the interview. He may also have a helpful change or addition to the list.

Control the interview. The interview is a bit of a dance between you and the storyteller. You have an agenda, but you need to be flexible enough to allow your storyteller to be spontaneous and follow the occasional tangent. The challenge is to keep your storyteller from wandering too far afield. Here’s what I recommend: Keep a list of your questions on a clipboard on your lap – and make sure you have enough room on the list to make some notes. Listen carefully! When your storyteller takes a detour, make a mental note (and then a physical one on the question list) of where he left the previous story. Now, focus on what he’s currently relating and give him a chance to return to the question at hand. If it’s clear that he’s not coming back and that you need to rein him in, simply note on your question sheet what it is he’s talking about. Politely interrupt him, tell him that you’ll gladly return to what he’s saying later in the interview – but that you’d like to finish up with the subject you were addressing before he took that left turn. Then, ask him a follow-up question that’ll get him back on track. For example: “Before you started talking about B you were telling me about A. Please tell me what happened after…”

Of course, keep your word later and ask about the subject he was addressing before you needed to interrupt.

With someone who tends to go off on tangents, you may need to do a lot of “reining in” during the course of the interview. But, if you are patient and gentle about it, you’ll not only get all your main questions answered – you’ll capture some interesting and unexpected tidbits as well.