EVERYONE HAS A STORY TO TELL
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If this is true, then a story must be worth a million. Connecting with an audience, large or small, can be a challenge for safety leaders or anyone tasked with communicating the safety message. A good story can be one of the most effective tools a presenter can use.
Most people have a story about safety and how it impacted their lives. I have dozens of stories from personal experience and those that others have shared with me. I often use these stories when developing and delivering training. There is one story that is more impactful than others. About 15 years ago, I lost a friend and a coworker. He was engulfed by grain outside of a large storage tank. I remember everything about the day, including where I was when I received the phone call. I remember arriving on scene just in time for his body to be lifted on to a gurney and into the back of the coroner’s vehicle. I remember his wife kissing him on the cheek for the last time. I remember seeing his young children at the funeral and thinking of how they will never really understand what a great dad they had and how much he loved them.
I also remember showing up at work on Saturday to start the daunting task of figuring out what happened. There was an ominous feeling of disbelief and sadness. After weeks of interviews and analysis we identified the root causes and corrective actions. We had to do this to prevent something similar from ever happening again. I tell this story routinely to honor my friend because I know he wouldn’t want anyone’s family to experience something similar. I tell the story because it has an impact on people and may cause them to think before making a costly decision.
Many people struggle to connect with employees, especially when it comes to safety. Some leaders do not have hands-on experience working in a grain bin, switching railcars, or cleaning boot pits. Many of them however, do have a story to tell. Stories don’t necessarily have to relate to work. I once worked with a senior manager who struggled to connect with his operations folks. He was formally trained in business, not operations. We discussed the value that a safety related story provides. After reflecting on our conversation, he called me a few weeks later. He told me the story of how his high school daughter was injured in a car accident. He told me how he felt and how important her safety is to him. He was concerned that the story wasn’t something that happened at work. I communicated to him that it doesn’t matter, it's relatable to anyone who has loved ones. He began to tell his story routinely and it had an impact on his fellow employees.
Many operations employees have numerous stories about injuries, near misses, and fatalities. Some of the more experienced workers that I’ve had in classroom sessions hold these stories close to the vest. They often come up after class and share something that happened to them or a coworker. I always ask if they are willing to share their experience with the group, emphasizing the impact it will have on their coworkers, particularly the inexperienced. Sometimes they agree and sometimes they don’t. If they aren’t willing, I ask if I can share the story and not reference them directly. More than likely, they agree to allow this. They realize the impact that the story may have on their coworkers.
Stories allow people to relate to one another and the subject matter. The use of real-life scenarios and case studies increase retention of information. Story telling can be contagious. I’ve seen this first hand. With one particular organization that I work with, I have to cut stories short so that we can cover the required material within the allotted time. It is a good problem to have; a group of folks engaged in a topic and willing to share personal experiences so that others can learn from them.
If you are looking to connect with an audience and make an impact on their safety, consider a story. Stories have a way of creating internal images that people retain and more important retrieve from time to time. Who knows, the story you share my save someone’s life, I’m sure my friend’s story has.
Joe Mlynek is a partner and subject matter expert at Safety Made Simple, Inc. He has over 20 years of experience in safety at the corporate level and as a consultant. He is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and Occupational Safety and Health Technician (OHST). Joe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org