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What’s Your Story?

What's your story? The power of story telling.

When it comes to safety training, stories are a powerful way to reach your audience. When you’re new to a job, the thing that resonates with you the most is a veteran employee telling you stories about what they have experienced or witnessed first-hand. Without having to understand all of the technicalities of the job, a story can quickly tell someone what to do and why it’s important to do it a certain way.

A narrative allows people to see themselves as the subject of the story, so knowing your audience will make it applicable. People typically learn from their mistakes and these stories, although they didn’t necessarily happen to the listener, can serve as a moral lesson because the listener can relate to the story or see something similar happening to them.

Urban legends are often told in the workplace to deliver that moral lesson. It usually happened to a friend of a friend and the shocking nature of the story will resonate with the listener. An urban legend that circulates in retail stores tells the story of a customer who was in the middle of lodging a complaint when the phone rang in the store. The employee that was listening to the customer cut them off to answer the phone, leaving the customer feeling unimportant and mistreated. The customer grabbed a pen off the counter and stabbed the employee in the hand while they were still on the phone.  The moral lesson here is to ensure the customers in front of you are receiving your full attention. Typically, the employee in the story has long since left the employ of the store and the teller of the story didn’t meet the employee but knows someone that did.

Just because a story isn’t true, doesn’t mean the risk described in the story isn’t real. And the new employees heed that lesson that customer service is important—fatally important.

That said, true stories told in the first person will almost always be more impactful by showing vulnerability and a more genuine, first-hand account of the incident. Even if the outcome wasn’t as dramatic (but could have been) it will add credibility to you and the point you’re trying to make. And it will also go a long way in getting your audience to share their personal stories when you call on them.

Toolbox talks are another great way to relate the message of the safety training in a way that people will remember. A toolbox talk session is typically short in duration so the narrative is a great way to discuss hazards, incidents and accidents while getting the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time. Storytelling is a powerful method of conveying information—helping listeners identify with it and keep it top of mind, which is the goal of a toolbox talk.

As SafeStart’s free guide: 15 Tips to Improve Your Toolbox Talks demonstrates, in order to be effective you need to combine statistics with engaging stories. “The goal of most toolbox talks is to help workers keep safety in mind throughout the day. A statistic is rarely compelling enough to do that on its own.”

SafeStart uses storytelling as a key element to teaching safety habits—because it’s the stories that people will remember long after the training. SafeStart digs beneath the surface of injuries and looks at the state a person was in when the injury occurred and how that state could have contributed to a critical error. Most people can reflect in hindsight after an incident occurs and pinpoint what they could have done differently. Using real-life stories is a great way to demonstrate what you’re teaching and the audience will better relate to and remember your examples.

When using stories to affect behavior and attitudes towards safety, it’s important to remember that a successful story contains a number of elements. The criteria for an effective SafeStart story includes: what happened, what state or states was the person in, what critical errors did they commit, what SafeStart technique may have prevented it and how could the injury or close call have been worse? For any story, the more specific you can be, the more engaging and impactful it will be for your listeners. Paint a picture that will help them feel what it would have been like in that situation. Make them cringe, make them smile and you’ll make them remember.

Storytelling is only one part of engaging people in training but one that is often underused. When used in a mixed approach to training, backed-up with instruction in different formats and hands-on demonstration, it will help you create advocates of safety that can’t wait to spread the word.

If you’re interested in learning more about the art of storytelling, you should check out The Story Factor by Annette Simmons on our Recommended Reading list.

And if you’re interested in improving your toolbox talks, download the free Toolbox Guide here.

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