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How to Maximize Two Underrated Safety Skills: Relatability and Storytelling

Woman teaching through storytelling

Relatability and storytelling may not seem like obviously necessary safety skills. It may not even be clear that the two are related to one another. But make no mistake, relatability and storytelling go hand in hand with positive safety outcomes. And if you’re a safety pro who’s looking to better engage workers then you need to pay attention to these soft skills.

A previous post on the value of empathy in safety noted that people are more likely to listen to someone they can connect with. And so it’s important to show them that you’re a real person and give them an opportunity to connect with you on a human level.

That’s absolutely true with relatability too. If you want people to relate to you, then you have to give them things to relate to. You have to tell them about yourself, and you have to listen to them talk about themselves too. In short: you have to be human.

But you don’t want workers to just relate to you as a person. You also want them to relate to what you’re saying. And there are two areas where that matters: what you say, and how you say it.

How you talk about safety

When it comes to how you talk to people in your capacity as a safety professional, it’s summed up quite well by our Master of Safety Training Guide:

“For one reason or another, too many safety trainers try to avoid making mistakes and they end up limiting their ability to connect with the audience. The best safety trainers are relatable—they talk like a human, using conversational speech instead of reading technical jargon off a piece of paper, and they focus on being relatable rather than trying to deliver a flawless TED Talk.

They also recognize that they’re talking to humans. Trainees will get distracted, their minds will wander, they’ll forget things. It’s an inevitable fact of safety training. Offering a bit of grace as you marshal their attention back to the lesson can earn you a lot of appreciation.”

Think of the best bosses you’ve ever had: they all projected authority, yes, but they also avoided corporate jargon and spoke to you honestly. Speaking like a real person—earnestly, and using plain language—will make you more relatable.

The safety stories you tell

Safety is the story of how we keep people safe. It’s the story of how people get injured. And it’s the story that people tell themselves about what risk means to them. Amid a sea of statistics, it’s hard to forget that all the numbers are just a means to an end—they’re a way of telling a story about safety.

In the end, it’s the story that matters. Because stories are what people remember, and they’re what motivates people to change their perceptions and actions.

If you want to see this in action, try telling your workers a notable statistic, like the fact that 36.4% of all construction industry fatalities are caused by falls to a lower level. And then tell them a compelling story about someone who thought he was bulletproof when working at heights and, while taking a shortcut, fell and was injured.

The next morning, ask workers if they remember what that statistic was. And then ask if they can recall any of the details from that story. Chances are, they’re more likely to recall the story, even though it’s about a less serious outcome (an injury) than the statistic (death).

Storytelling is a skill that can make whatever it is you’re doing better, whether it’s delivering safety training to a room full of workers or presenting the latest safety statistics to your boss. Whenever possible, try to weave a narrative into whatever it is that you’re doing.

Stories can be made context-specific in some really helpful ways. If you’re running forklift re-certification training then you can incorporate a story or two about common hazards that people might run into at your facility. That way, you’ll not only check the compliance box but you’ll also provide a practical and meaningful refresher on a safety issue. There’s no need to limit yourself to training scenarios either. Stories would work equally well in other safety interventions, from a forklift toolbox talk, for example, or a one-on-one safety conversation with a powered truck operator.

Learning to tell good stories also makes it easier for you to get workers to tell their own stories, which expands the range of stories that people have access to (which keeps things fresh and stops people from getting complacent), and also builds engagement and empathy by making people feel like they’re being listened to.

This blog post is a sample from the guide 7 Essential Soft Skills For Hard Workplace Safety Problems, which reviews the soft skills that influence employee engagement in safety.

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