Finding Safety through Story

Sept. 1, 2011
Why sharing a story is so much more influential than simply stating the facts.

Compiling and editing the accounts found in this issue’s special 9/11 section was, at times, a trying experience. I could feel the pain, shock and fear radiating from each story, and through these accounts I relived, again and again, the horror I felt on that day.

Even so, I’m grateful EHS Today had the opportunity to recognize the 10-year Sept. 11 anniversary through such personal stories – because story, it turns out, is a powerfully effective communication tool.

“Storytelling activates whole-brain learning. It stimulates sensory awareness,” explains Doug Stevenson, the founder and president of the speaking, training and consulting company Story Theater International. “It can take [communication] from intellectual to visceral and experiential. It’s an incredibly powerful vehicle if you know what you’re doing.”

While storytelling can be emotional, as in 9/11 remembrances, it also has many practical applications -- including safety training. I think we’ve all sat through a boring presentation or endured a tedious lecture. But if the trainer starts telling a story, Stevenson says, attendees are more likely to sit up and take notice.

That’s because storytelling can be fun. By incorporating stories into your training sessions, workers will think they are playing and, as a result, will learn more.

“It changes the dynamic,” Stevenson explains. “It changes the energy. People are going to laugh, have fun and think, ‘Oh we’re taking a break for a minute.’ But when I tell a story, I’m still teaching. I’m just using a different modality.”

That reaction also is why trainers sometimes turn to videos to get difficult point across. When I took the OSHA 10-hour training course in 2008, the instructor played several YouTube videos related to course content. To this day, I still can remember some of those videos, which included footage of a major crane collapse and an employee falling through an open trap door. I wasn’t alone – the entire classroom paid attention whenever a video was cued up.

But you don’t need YouTube to engage your workers through story. Stevenson offers three key concepts for using storytelling effectively:

No. 1 – Always tell the right story at the right time that makes the right point. “If a story isn’t relevant, people think it’s a waste of time,” he says.

No. 2 – Each story should make only one learning point. While some storytellers are tempted to try to convey more than one lesson at the conclusion of a story, the brain, which tracks story in a linear fashion, wants to arrive at a single destination.

No. 3 – The magic is in the details. “In order for story to come alive, it has to have texture. It has to have characters,” Stevenson says. “It’s not just a report or a list of what happened.”

When conveying important safety information, Stevenson tells EHS professionals not to be afraid to use the story to paint a vivid, realistic picture, even that if that picture isn’t pretty.

“In a safety situation, your story must create pain. It must create danger. It must stimulate an emotional reaction within the listener so that they feel they’re the person who got injured during the story. In other words, you can’t just tell a story about something that happened without letting it be emotional, and painful, and scary and dangerous,” he explains.

Ten years after 9/11, it sometimes can be easy to feel inundated with the memorials, politics and discussions about what this day meant and how we can move forward. But one thing that never grows old is the personal stories – of the survivors, of the families who lost loved ones, or how the events prompted one person to make a life or career change. We are different now, yes, but it is through our stories that we can best express how we’ve changed and why it matters.

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