Corporate storytelling – How effective communication skills could improve workplace safety

Storytelling - effective communication skillsAs we’ve discussed before, motivating some staff to get excited about safety is not a challenge for the faint-hearted. No matter the number of workplace accident statistics that clearly illustrate the detrimental effect preventable injuries have on our workforce – not to mention our struggling A&E departments – some people still seem to be fixated on the fact that health and safety is boring, or something to be derided. Thankfully, occupational safety professionals are a thick-skinned bunch and will go to great lengths to improve worker involvement. One technique you might not have considered, however, is the power of storytelling – which as this blog shows, is definitely not just for children…

What is storytelling?

Stories have always been here. Our earliest ancestors told their stories using pictures on the walls of their caves. And the Greek myths and the Homeric epics provide early examples of stories as educational tools. They taught their listeners how to behave. They encouraged their audiences to remain on the straight and narrow by highlighting the dire consequences of misbehaviour. And so seen in this context, using storytelling to promote good health and safety behaviour makes perfect sense. Nevertheless, it takes some inspired thinking to actually integrate storytelling into modern safety training, as the following case study makes clear.

A short story about short stories…

RoSPA Award Winners Cemex employs 3,000 people at over 400 sites across the country. Their activities include quarrying and cement manufacture, as well as distribution. In 2013, Cemex employees filled in over 27,000 near miss/hazard alert forms, inspiring them to take the innovative step of introducing their workforce to the art of narration and storytelling.*

Rather than going it alone, Cemex partnered with a homeless charity, Cardboard Citizens. Their approch to learning encourages participants to tell stories and share feedback with each other. Learning comes from the participants. Working in pairs, they tell their story to each other and then relay to the group as if it is their own. Doing so, the group then have a discussion which teaches the participants the techniques of storytelling.

So far the initiative has already proved a hit with front line supervisors. The hope is they will use their newly discovered storytelling skills to reinforce the health and safety message throughout the company, and that once the stories make a big enough impact, maybe workers will repeat them, for example, in the canteen, or perhaps in the pub after work or to their families during the evening meal. And if they can convey the emotional impact of the incident or accident, they will be spreading the health and safety message in a very effective way.Bringing stories to life with corporate storytelling

Now over to you

Remember, there are plenty of ways you can learn from Cemex’s example and deploy storytelling to improve the way safety is delivered in your workplace. Examples of areas that might benefit from ‘story-fication’ include:

  • Safety training – face-to-face exchanges and written material could be improved by introducing a more emotive, empathetic approach.
  • Staff safety inductions – instead of delivering a monologue, why not turn inductions into a two-way conversation? You might be surprised by what you learn!
  • Boring safety presentations – we’ve touched on the phenomenon of ‘death by PowerPoint’ before – instead of boring your audience with pie charts, why not engage and entertain them with a story?
  • Bringing safety home – we all know that the majority of accidents happen outside the workplace, either on the road or at home. By utilising story telling during workplace training, you are encouraging your staff to remember what they’ve learnt for longer, and perhaps even spread the word to family and friends!

Check your ingredients

If you’re thinking about using stories to change behaviour and attitudes towards safety in the workplace, it’s worth remembering that a successful story contains a number of elements. Points to consider include:

  • Is the story well structured?
  • Does it have a beginning, middle and an end?
  • Does it introduce character and set a scene? Does it introduce an obstacle? Does it have conflict?
  • Does the story have pace and rhythm to reflect the change of gear as the pace speeds up or slows down?
  • Does the language help you achieve your aims? Is it exciting, inspiring and impactful?
  • Are you using your body to covey meaning? Good body language is vital to show you are present, ready, available, open and positive.

If you are still looking for help with storytelling, the Copyblogger website has some excellent advice and tips for creating effective stories, which once heard are impossible to forget – just like this one!

*Part of this article is an abridged version of a story which originally appeared in RoSPA’s Occupational Safety & Health Journal.

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