Recognizing the Power of Stories
“You’re never going to kill storytelling because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.”
– Margaret Atwood
Storytelling is at the heart of every culture. It is the original art form. It’s through stories that we communicate our histories, our morals, and our rituals. Stories give us a feeling of belonging. Stories turn individuals into a community.
When you sit with Duke Greenhill, you can tell immediately that you are in the presence of a master storyteller. He’s headed national ad campaigns for Tiffany & Co., MasterCard, and L’oreal, just to name a few. He’s written screenplays. He and Red Sanders helped found the Fort Worth Film Commission. He’s currently teaching strategic communications at the Bob Schieffer College of Communications at TCU while using his considerable talents to help nonprofits like Rogue Water and The Gladney Center for Adoption. Before bringing him back home, his adventures have taken him from Fort Worth to Austin to Washington, DC. to New York City to Savannah.
And storytelling is the thread that ties it all together.
I met Duke at the TCU bookstore before he had to go teach a class. It was a chilly afternoon, and Starbucks was packed with students. I assume they were all diligently studying.
Duke is an eye-smiler with a contagious laugh and a way of leaning in while he’s both talking and listening, making you feel like you’re the only person in the room. He not only cares about the stories he’s telling, he cares about the stories he hears. We talked about our sound-bite society and about how we have lost the ability to listen to other people’s stories. I asked how a storyteller can overcome a shortened attention span and a lack of empathy.
“It may seem overly Pollyanna-ish, but if you are a good storyteller, and you tell stories well, people will listen,” Duke said. “I have to believe, and I’ve seen it play out anecdotally in my work, that if you have a good story, it will find an audience…You see this in the short documentaries that win Academy Awards – they are hyper-specific, hyper-simple. They’re a tiny little story, but they’re so well-told. And by giving them awards, by buying tickets to see them, we’re celebrating the craft of storytelling.”
Duke learned how to tell a story from his parents. The oldest of three boys, Duke is a proud Gladney baby, as is his middle brother, Frank. “My youngest brother, Joe, was a very happy surprise,” Duke grinned. Every night, instead of asking his parents to read Green Eggs and Ham or The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Duke would ask for another story.
“We call it ‘the Gladney Story,’ and it was my bedtime story. It was how I came from Gladney,” Duke remembered. “My dad and my mom told it differently, of course, and I don’t remember a time when I didn’t hear it. It was my very favorite story. Maybe they didn’t realize the impact it would have on me, but the choice they made to tell me that story the way they did most nights was just genius parenting.”
Origins, belonging, and love, all wrapped up in a bedtime story.
“That’s the kind of storytelling I like. Where do we come from? What’s our heritage? How did we become what we are?” Duke said.
Carrying this love of stories with him through college and grad school, Duke, like many of us, worked in a variety of fields. During college at the University of Texas, he was an editor and producer at Austin’s CBS affiliate. He worked in politics. He worked in film production and wrote screenplays. “My graduate degree is in film, and I worked in film for a while,” Duke said, “But I knew myself well enough to know that I needed something faster-paced. When you’re on a film set, it’s 20 hours a day, and that’s plenty fast, but the breaks in between were intolerable.”
This need for something faster paced with fewer breaks led to producing television ads. At the time, Madison Avenue was transitioning. The tried-and-true method of advertising was selling the latest and greatest. It was about creating a want. Not a need. A want. But as the Millennial generation grew up and began buying, advertising began to change.
Duke said, “At the agency I was at in New York [R/GA], there was an understanding – it wasn’t conscious or even articulable – that there was a need for more heart. We can’t continue to sell things based only on features and benefits. We have to understand what a brand stands for, what does a brand believe in… for lack of a better phrase, who are they? People want to support brands whose values align with their own.”
This change in the way goods and services are advertised played right into Duke’s strengths. Going from creating a want to selling the brand behind the goods required stories. Good stories.
One campaign that Duke headed was a social media campaign for Tiffany & Co. that changed the way advertising utilizes social media. By updating Tiffany & Co.’s mobile app to include social sharing, couples were able to share their love stories and photos. “They [Tiffany & Co.] were willing to expand their vision of what true love is beyond the traditional,” Duke said. “It was so exciting to be part of that.”
Duke also worked with MasterCard in a campaign that recognized the emergence of a class of very affluent young people while evolving the classic “Priceless” campaign. Duke harnessed the power of the hashtag; by using #PricelessSurprises, MasterCard users could receive surprise gifts – from a pair of headphones to spending the day with Justin Timberlake.
“But while MasterCard was recognizing the opportunities that came from the emerging affluent young people, they were devising programs that prevented them from incurring burdensome credit card debt,” Duke said.
I asked Duke why he left the corporate world to jump into academia. After all, teaching is widely considered to be antithetical to the American Dream of making as much money as you can. Teachers aren’t valued in our society – remember that hoary old chestnut, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach?” Duke can clearly do. So why teach?
“The short answer is, and I don’t mean this in any sort of negative way, is that I don’t care,” Duke grinned. “It took me a long time to learn not to care about what other people think, but I finally did, thank God.”
“The longer answer is that in the industries I’ve worked in – film, advertising, coaching, writing – once you’ve reached a certain level, it’s about teaching. It’s about mentorship. It’s about leading a group of people toward a singular idea, a singular vision, whether that’s the classroom or an ad campaign.”
Duke began to warm to his subject. “The impact you have on a set of students is direct; you can see it and feel it, and the reward for that is far greater than any amount of money. With film or advertising, you can look at the data and say, ‘Yes, we made a change.’ But data is inert. I started in film. I’ve worked in politics. I’ve worked in news and advertising and coaching, but it was the storytelling that was the thread that kept me going. Teaching is storytelling and storytelling is teaching. It’s not a diversion or departure. It’s a return to the craft that maybe I should have been doing all along.”
After a stint at Savannah College of Art and Design where he was a multi-department chair (“I loved the kids, I loved the school, but I knew that three years was about all I could do without sacrificing my health and sanity”), he missed the direct impact of teaching. So Duke decided to come home to Fort Worth and TCU. When I asked what drew him back, his answer was immediate.
All of Duke’s family, with the exception of his middle brother who lives in Montana, are here in Fort Worth. “My youngest brother has twin eight-year-old sons… I’ve gotten to a point where I realized that family is one of the most important things to me, and I wanted to come home.”
While teaching is his “real” job, Duke lends his considerable talents (or in corporate speak “consults”) for nonprofits like Rogue Water and Gladney. According to their website, Rogue Water “builds bridges between the water industry and the people they serve.”
When asked what about Rogue Water intrigued him, you can hear the passion in Duke’s voice and see it in his bearing. “I was aware water was going to be an issue. I was aware that half a globe away, people didn’t have access to clean, healthy water, but I was ignorant to the realities and the immediacy of the problem”
“I met Stephanie [Corso, the founder of Rogue Water] about five years ago… Water is a problem that’s not in the future, it’s a problem that’s right now. It’s not Africa’s problem. It’s not Australia’s problem. There are 2.2 million Americans who don’t have access to clean, healthy water, which to me is a basic human right… If people don’t have access to clean water, their story should be told. If their story is told, empathy and hopefully solutions will follow. Water isn’t just about a commodity. It’s about life and death. I just hope it’s not too late.”
Duke’s other passion is Gladney. “The folks at Gladney laugh when I say this, but I feel a sense of duty here. Without them, who knows where I would be, so to me, the opportunity to assist them is a gift.”
Leaning forward to make his point, Duke said, “Gladney and adoption is at a crossroads. Domestic infant adoption is on a steep decline worldwide for a number of reasons, and international foster adoptions seem to be what is in demand. Gladney has heretofore been focused on domestic infant adoption, but they had the foresight to begin expanding, and now they have a very robust international program and foster program. They built out this suite of services but don’t really know how best to integrate them into the singular Gladney brand.”
“In advertising, we talk about brand persona. Gladney approaches their brand persona from a place of unconditional love and unconditional duty to the child. When you think about Mrs. Gladney, and you think about the families each adopted child impacts, and then the number of people they [the families] impact, then you’re looking at the impact that one single person made across the world. One person can’t do that. But she did.”
While it may seem that our interview was neat and linear, in reality, it was anything but. Like any good storyteller, Duke understands the value of tangents to underscore a point. We talked about the controversy surrounding Stephen Ambrose. Duke asked, “What was Ambrose’s bullseye? Was it to be literally precise, or was it to be emotionally precise? I think he was close enough to both, and he’s a big hero of mine.”
Taking a deep breath, Duke said, “I never ascertained from my grandfather what caused the shift in him, but after reading it [Band of Brothers, Ambrose’s 1992 books that was the basis for the 2001 miniseries], he sat down and wrote out his war stories. He printed them out and gave them to all of us. It was a vehicle for asking questions.”
“Some of that stuff in that little narrative was more revealing to who he was and who he became after than any of the 20-something years I knew him as his grandson. And because of that little narrative, I realize that I want to capture my parents’ stories before it’s too late.”
In this world of soundbites and noise, we need storytellers more than ever to make connections for us to widen our world. And that’s the power of what Duke does. He brings his listeners out of their stories and gives them the opportunities to learn about someone else. And when you learn about someone else, you begin to empathize with them. When you empathize with someone, you begin to break down the walls that divide us.
All by simply listening to a story.