Jeff Russell Storytime

One of my favorite memories from the Army is “Jeff Russell Storytime”. It seemed like a silly way to pass the time, but ended up teaching me a lot that I still use today. Out of way too much free time, it evolved into a regular occurrence that we all enjoyed a lot. I got to share some of my favorite gems from history and mythology, and over time I learned a thing or two about storytelling.

I don’t remember precisely how it became a “thing”, but somewhere along the line, my buddies started specifically requesting “Jeff Russell Storytime”. I’m sure it started out as at least half-joking, but over time I think they enjoyed listening as much as I did telling. You see, in the Army you have a lot of time standing around with nothing much to do, especially in the infantry. Guard duty, police lines, waiting around for assignments - we all became very accustomed to the different flavors of waiting around. So, I started telling my friends stories.

Most of the stories I told came from history and mythology, thanks to my classical education, but a few were personal anecdotes. I was pleasantly surprised to find a bunch of grunts interested in hearing about, say, the Synod of Whitby or Achilles and Hector, or how the Mexican-American War got started. I was slightly less surprised at their interest in personally embarrassing stories, often involving a bit too much to drink. A few were favorites, requested multiple times, others were whatever I could come up with at the time. Some fell a little flat, obviously, but I was helped out by the afore mentioned “nothing else to do”. That helps make for a pretty forgiving audience.

At the time, I was just entertaining myself and my friends, and didn’t give much thought to what I might be learning from it. Looking back, though, telling these stories in front of a live audience taught me a lot of important lessons that I’ve been able to apply in my business and personal life.  Listening to which stories were requested and how people reacted helped me learn what was interesting. Watching interest wax and wane gave me a sense of how to pace things. Paying that kind of attention gave me lots of practice reading the nuances of a crowd’s reaction, and as I learned to be aware of that, I figured out how to use my voice and gestures to get certain effects and heighten the drama of the telling.

We’ve explored a lot of different sorts of storytelling here on the blog, but old-fashioned in-person oral storytelling has a lot to recommend it, and you can use it in all sorts of situations. As the above shows, to get the practice you don’t even have to tell your own stories - you can tell anything you know and find interesting, and over time you’ll get the knack for reading an audience and altering your telling to suit them.


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