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June 12, 2023

The Value of Storytelling in Training

Storytelling can help learning and development professionals create and deliver more engaging and effective training.  Robyn Shumer, a global lead with Johnson & Johnson’s Mental Health Diplomats Employee Resource Group, shares how telling a personal story can inspire and educate learners.


Show Notes:

Here are some of Robyn Shumer's key takeaways.

  • If you're a training or a workshop facilitator, you can connect with learners when you have an emotional story to tell.
  • Information wrapped in an emotional story is more likely to be remembered.
  • An organization's stories, such as the story of its founding, can help instill culture and help engage team members in the organization's values and mission. 

Watch Robyn Shumer's Ted Talk, "What's Your Story?"
Learn more about Robyn on her website.

Powered by Learning earned an Award of Distinction in the Podcast/Audio category from The Communicator Awards and a Silver Davey Award for Educational Podcast. The podcast is also named to Feedspot's Top 40 L&D podcasts and Training Industry’s Ultimate L&D Podcast Guide.



Susan Cort: You want your learning and development experiences to engage learners and make the learning stick. One way to improve engagement and retention is through storytelling.

Robyn Shumer: I think that one way we really want to engage audiences, we need to connect with them emotionally and to make them really care about the content. The best way to do this is through storytelling.

Susan: Our guest, Robyn Shumer, is a Global Lead with Johnson & Johnson's Mental Health Diplomats Employee Resource Group. Robyn will discuss how wrapping information into a story can make for more effective learning next on Powered By Learning.

Presenter: Powered By Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. d'Vinci's approach to learning is grounded in 30 years of innovation and expertise. We use proven strategies and leading technology to develop solutions that empower learners to improve quality and boost performance. [00:01:00] Learn more at d'

Susan: Joining us today are d'Vinci, CEO Luke Kempski, and our guest, Robyn Shumer, who's a Global Lead for Johnson & Johnson Mental Health Diplomats Employee Resource Group. Robyn, thank you for joining us.

Luke Kempski: Yes. Welcome, Robyn.

Robyn: Thank you for having me.

Susan: Robyn, start off by telling us a little bit about your background and your current role at J&J.

Robyn: My background is in public health. I studied public health at the graduate school level and I think that's a really good foundation. It's really relevant to everything that I do.

Most of my jobs have involved learning and development, and helping people in organizations to become the best that they can be. At Johnson & Johnson, I work in that space as well as having led the Mental Health Diplomats ERG.

Luke: That's great. I know we're going to talk a lot about storytelling and its relevance in learning and development. I guess talk a little bit about how your story connects with [00:02:00] your role that you now play at Johnson & Johnson.

Robyn: Great question. Several years ago, I heard a J&J TEDx speaker talking about his desire to really change the way people think about mental health. He had a great question. He wanted to know why don't we treat mental health issues the same as we treat physical illnesses.

Why not a bring a casserole to somebody who's home withdepression like we do for somebody who has a broken leg? He shared his lived experience as the parent to a daughter with anorexia. And I was really blown away.

I didn't know that people could talk about their mental health issues at work. As someone who started struggling with anorexia at the age of eight, I was so moved, touched, and inspired, and immediately joined him in this work to change the way people think about mental health at Johnson & Johnson. [00:03:00]

The Johnson & Johnson alliance for diversabilities is the ERG, the Employee Resource Group that the mental Health Diplomats are aligned with. Being somebody that's supervised towards action, I drove right in.

The Mental Health Diplomats have really had two goals. One is to increase awareness about employee mental health and well-being resources, and to create a space for employees to share their stories.

In 2018, I give a TEDx called What's Your Story where I invited the audience to not be ashamed to share the stories that shaped them. It's been full steam ahead since then.

Luke: Thank you for sharing that. Our listeners, there's a lot of them that are involved in delivering learning and development experiences. They have a lot of opportunities to engage learners in different ways. How do you think that telling their story can help them be more effective at what they do?

Robyn: First and foremost, I think that when we are authentic and we're not ashamed to share the stories that shaped us, [00:04:00] it creates a connection and it eradicates barriers.

Using a storytelling methodology to knowledge-share and to teach, it's much more effective and engaging than the traditional stage-on-a-stage approach.

I think that when we really want to engage audiences, we need to connect with them emotionally and to make them really care about the content. The best way to do this is through storytelling.

Gosh, I love this example so much. Years ago, we had a program where we brought intercity youth in every Saturday for four years for job training and mentoring.

One year we thought, you know what? Their last summer here, we should really give them a stipend. Luke, I had a choice. I could go to the VP and I could say, "Hey, Luke, I need $5,000 per student for the stipend." How would that land on you?

Luke: Yikes. [00:05:00]

Susan: I can tell you because I usually ask him for money. 

Luke: How much? For what?

Robyn: It's dead on arrival. Instead, I used the storytelling approach. Imagine if I would say, "Luke, I have a question for you. If you could change the trajectory of an intercity youth's life for just $5,000, would you do it?"

Luke: Susan probably would make a pitch just like that and-

Susan: I know.

Luke: She's hitting me right in the heart, and then we would invest and go forward. 

Susan: Thank you for the tip, though. Luke is very giving even without my storytelling approach, but I appreciate the advice. That's good.

Robyn: Right. That's just a tangible example of using emotion and heart in storytelling.

Luke: When you think about the elements of a story as a trainer and somebody responsible for creating learning in any media, how should they think about the elements of a story and how they can integrate them?

Robyn: I immediately think about the structure of [00:06:00] storytelling. We're used to seeing a traditional story arc where there's a beginning, a middle, and an end. The good thing about that is it's predictable, it's relatable, we're all comfortable with it.

Deleterious or the harmful thing about it is that it's predictable, we're comfortable with it. When you're used to something, you might zone out a little bit and not pay as much attention.

When I talk to people about storytelling, I encourage them to use the-- Nancy Duarte taught me this-- approach of imagining what is and what could be. As you're telling your story, constantly going back and forth between what is and what could be. Thinking about your current state and your future state.

I'll give you a really quick example of that. In my TED talk, I talk about how I adopted my son from Korea. 15 years later, suddenly I wasn't infertile anymore. On my 40th birthday, I got pregnant. So that's what is. [00:07:00] Everybody in the audience was cheering.

What could be is that I was 40, so that's advanced maternal age. Also, I'm a carrier of a genetic anomaly that if I pass it on to the baby, the baby would have been affected. Thinking about ways to engage people and keep them on the edge of their seats is a really good technique.

Luke: Yes, absolutely. I know in some cases though, when we're doing training, you have a lot of facts and figures or really technical information. Do you think there's a way that trainers can approach those kinds of subjects, topics in a way that helps array that storytelling as part of a solution?

Robyn: I love this question so much. Brené Brown, who I'm sure all of your listeners are familiar with, has a great quote. She says, "Stories are data with a soul."

I'll tell you, Luke. You could be the most accomplished scientist or mathematician, but if you can't talk about your data [00:08:00] in a way that resonates with diverse audiences, it doesn't mean anything.

Looking at the work of Nancy Duarte again, she talks about when you use slides, you want to ask yourself, can my audience understand the key takeaway of the data on the slide in three seconds or less? If not, then you need to fix your slide.

Another thing that she talks about is using imagery instead of numbers. And then my favorite thing that she says is, when you're talking about data and metrics and numbers, you want to make your audience marvel at the magnitude of your data.

In my storytelling workshop, I ask people at the end of our time together, how many years would it take for a human to count to a trillion? Everybody laughs, they giggle, and they put their guesses in the chat. Any ideas you guys how many years it would take?

Susan: No. I'm waiting for the answer.

Luke: I think [00:09:00] probably a billion.

Robyn: The answer is 37.trillion years. It's a huge exaggeration and it's funny, but it really is a tangible way to make the data more relatable to people.

Those are really my big suggestionsI'm totally making this up, but if I'm sharing data on how many people in the US live with mental illnesses, I could state the facts and say, "Nearly one in five US adults lives with a mental illness."

And I could go on and tell you that's 52.9 million people. But that number is so big and it doesn't make any sense, at least to me. But, what if I told you that the number of Americans living with mental illnesses was 1.5 times the population of the state of California?

Susan: Even the one in five, that's relatable and understandable, so that makes sense.

Robyn: Yes, so making your numbers matter to people.

Luke: I think we've made an emotional connection, [00:10:00] you've engaged your learners or your audience. That's definitely a success. But then you want them, when they leave you and go out into the world or back to their jobs, you want them to change or to do something differently.

What's the follow-through that you recommend in terms of inspiring people to go out and do something differently or change the way that they approach what your learning experience was all about?

Robyn: They are two parts of your story that matter the most. One is your opening. The second is your closing or your call to action. At the end of your story, you want to be super clear with your audience. Let them know what you want them to do.

I coached a speaker. He was an Ivy League graduate. He got on the stage, and he started with, "Hi, I'm Justin. I'm a former convicted felon." Great opening.

Luke: Yes, I'm engaged.

Robyn: Right? His talk was about how people just don't make eye contact anymore. [00:11:00]

His call to action was, "I want you to look to the person to your left. I want you to make eye contact and smile. I want you to look to the person to your right, make eye contact, and smile." Be super, super clear with your audience what action you want them to take after listening to your talk.

Luke: Very good, yes. When you think about organizations also have stories. The story of the organization might be the founding story or there's kinds of stories embedded in the culture that get retold.

How do you think that those stories can help instill culture in an organization, and maybe help share and engage team members in the values and mission of the organization?

Robyn: The cultures and values that resonate with employees and the public, I think those are like the bones of the organization or the foundation. And it's really important for the organization.

Those messages should be [00:12:00] reiterated and remind people of what the organization's why is. Why they're doing what they're doing. Why they're spending their time and their resources the way that they're spending them, and how everything circles back and anchors back to those values and mission.

Luke: Yes, absolutely. I know that there are lots of opportunities for learning leaders to look to those stories and integrate them into the training that they're doing so that they can perpetuate culture and to keep people engaged in working for the employer that they're supporting.

You spoke earlier about your role with the Mental Health Diplomats Employee Resource Group at J&J. How do you see what you're doing with the ERG further benefiting both the members of the ERG and the J&J organization?

Robyn: Employee Resource Groups, which some organizations call affinity groups, they're so beneficial to organizations and to employees. They create ecosystems  [00:13:00] where employees with common interests and similar lived experiences can engage, learn, and take action together.

Employee Resource Groups provide an exceptional opportunity for employees who might not be people leaders, but aspire to be one day, the chance to lead people and teams. They also provide employees with fantastic networking opportunities.

Some of my closest friends at work are from the Employee Resource Group. They're people who, our functional roles, would never in a million years intersect. The more engaged and empowered employees feel and the more connected and included they feel, the higher performers they'll be.

Luke: Yes, and absolutely that's going to lead to further retention, more engagement, more integration across less siloed interactions or roles within the organization. We can definitely see those benefits.

Robyn, tell us a little bit about what's next for you. Are there any new programs [00:14:00] or workshops that you're working on?

Robyn: Well…I'm always working on workshops and delivering things internally and externally. It was really great. This morning I presented my storytelling workshop to the African-American Ancestry Leadership team, which was really fun. So I'll continue doing all of that.

But the big news is I have a memoir that will be published later this year that I'm really excited about. I'm looking--

Before COVID, I would go around to different organizations and communities and teach people how to tell their story. Then I'd go back a couple of weeks later, and we would have a live story slam. Every event raised money for a non-profit.

Susan: That sounds like fun.

Robyn: It's super fun. My most successful event raised $10,000 for the March of Dimes in 90 minutes, so that's really great. I did it virtually during COVID, but it's a lot more fun [00:15:00] in person. So, I think I'll try to re-engage with that again.

Luke: That sounds great. The memoir certainly sounds like an ambitious project. Glad that you're tackling that, and we'll look forward to reading that.

Then also, speaking for all the learning leaders, we appreciate your promotion and your workshops around storytelling. And how they can be really engaging ways to teach and to train the learners we're responsible for sharing that knowledge and expertise with.

Thanks so much for joining us, Robyn. Certainly enjoyed talking to you, and look forward to talking to you soon.

Robyn: Thank you.

Susan: Thanks, Robyn. We appreciate your insights. And we'll look forward to seeing your book coming out soon, too.

Robyn: Thank you.

Speaker: Time for you to tell your story, right?

Robyn: Exactly.

Susan: Luke, Robyn makes some really great points about the importance of storytelling. How have you seen storytelling work well in L&D?

Luke: I've seen it work really well in lots of situations. One of the big takeaways I got from Robyn's interview [00:16:00] was that if you're a training or a workshop facilitator, you really have an opportunity to connect with your learners when you have an emotional story to tell.

Information wrapped in an emotional story is more likely to be remembered. While Robyn has used her personal story to teach about mental health, empathy, and personal growth, we can all look to our own personal stories or those of others and make them part of the learning experiences we create.

There are lots of ways to tell stories these days, from a short TikTok-style video to an in-person testimonial, or to a dramatic recreation using actors or animated characters.

When you have information wrapped in an emotional story that your audience relates to, magic can happen. More inspiration to take action, and change, and better retention.

Susan: That's where all the learning happens too.

Luke: Yes. Tell those relevant stories.

Susan: Absolutely. Well, thanks, Luke. [00:17:00] And special thanks to our guest, Robyn Shumer, from Johnson & Johnson. If you have an idea for a topic or a guest, please reach out to us at

Luke Kempski

By Luke Kempski, CEO

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