Growing up, one of my favorite TV cops was Sergeant Joe Friday of “Dragnet.” I loved it when he asked a witness a question and Joe received a “scenic tour” answer. Joe’s retort of “Just the facts, ma’am,” stuck with me. I even used it a few times, making my partner wince and shake his head.
At a recent dinner party there was a woman I had never met who moved from Flint, Michigan to Ramona. The host, also from Flint, asked her how she ended up out here. I figured at most this would be a 10-sentence recap. She went on and on about how she packed to move and countless other minutiae. After the third time she said, “Long story short,” I wanted to interrupt and say, “Too late.”
I think it comes down to the fact that people don’t know how to tell a story. Or, maybe they think their lives are so important and interesting that they must share every detail no matter how boring.
If someone is presenting a business plan, you want details. You need details. You need to know the good and bad parts of the plan. But, if you are asked a simple question, spare the details and cut to the chase for crying out loud.
One of my seminary buddies living in Florida has had a bad time with his health. He has been in and out of, but mostly in, the hospital since August. During a time I thought he was home I called to cheer him up, although it is questionable if a call from me will cheer anyone up.
His wife answered the phone, breathless. She had just walked in the door from having been at the hospital for the past 36 hours. My friend was admitted for kidney failure and a bad reaction to the blood thinner Coumadin. Knowing she had been under great stress, and probably sleep deprived, I told her I would call back another day.
Oh no, she told me all about the medications he had been taking, and the various doses. Granted, she was on top of things, but it didn’t matter to me whether he was taking 5.2 milligrams of something, or 5.8 milligrams, as she corrected herself. It wasn’t important. Yet, she had to tell me everything. I only wanted to know the prognosis, and when he might be coming home.
Then, she told me about their bathroom remodel so the house could accommodate a wheelchair. She said, “We had to move the cabinet 37 and a half inches to the right to get the door open. No, it was 38 and a half inches.” I had been listening to other useless details and about that time I wanted to throw the telephone against the wall and tell her I didn’t care how far they had to move the damned cabinet. That they remodeled the bathroom was enough for me.
If you ask me a question, I put myself in your place, and try to give a concise, interesting answer. I know you don’t want to hear useless details.
When I worked for the district attorney’s office and had to give an attorney a progress report on a case, you can bet I was brief. The attorneys didn’t want to hear a bunch of unnecessary stuff.
Of course that doesn’t stop the attorneys from making their point 10 times during the trial, when twice would have done the job. Some attorneys just don’t get it when it comes to brevity. I’ve sat through enough closing arguments to see the jury nodding off or bored stiff the fifth time the attorney made the point. This goes for defense attorneys as well. Just the facts, OK?