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9 Tips to Improve Safety Storytelling and Lead Memorable Presentations

Apr 10, 2023
Safety professional woman leading a presentation at a podium

Prehistoric humans didn’t produce data, spreadsheets and graphs to share vital safety information with each other. They drew pictures that told a story to improve safety.

This is the origin of storytelling in safety, says Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CSP, CIH, CHMM, CIT, and it speaks to the power of stories in the field. Klane is senior safety editor of Lab Manager Magazine and a Ph.D. candidate in Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation.

His ASSP webinar, “Leaders Need to Be Great Storytellers: How to Build Your Skills (According to Research)” underlines the value of storytelling to safety professionals, who often must share dry-yet-important information.

His nine tips for effective storytelling focus on capturing your audience and aiding their knowledge retention to improve safety and change attitudes.

1. Construct Stories Using Freytag’s Pyramid

You’ve probably seen this five-part model going as far back as elementary school: In the lowest left corner your story starts with exposition along a straight, flat line. Then the line shoots up on a 45-degree angle as rising action unfolds, followed by the climax at the highest point of the pyramid and then falling action as the line moves down the other side of the pyramid and finally flattens out in the resolution.

What you may not know is that these moments in storytelling are chemically powerful in our bodies, Klane says. Research by Claremont Graduate University scientist and author Paul Zak shows that we generate cortisol during the rising action, receive a spike of oxytocin right as the story hits the climax, then finally get a dose of dopamine as it reaches an emotional and satisfactory end. Klane reports two professors recently discovered that the most memorable Super Bowl ads over a two-year period followed this model.

2. Use Data, But Contextualize it With This Creative Nonfiction Pattern

To deliver your message as a leader, you need to give both context and data, which you can weave into a narrative. Klane recommends an easy pattern taught and recommended by Lee Gutkind, author, editor and founder of the Creative Nonfiction Foundation: Narrative, Data, Narrative, Data, Narrative

If you start with data, your audience will attempt to contextualize it on their own, Klane says. Instead, start with the narrative framework so you can control the context and help them focus on your presentation.

3. Use Stories to See Through the Eyes of Your Audience

OSHA, PELs, lockout/tagout and similar safety jargon reflects what Klane and others call the safety professional’s “curse of knowledge.” Sometimes, he explains, we know things so well we can’t put ourselves in the perspective of those who don’t have the same knowledge. Stories are a good way to avoid a safety presentation that goes over everyone’s heads, or as Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker puts it: “Stories are intricate examples that counter the curse of knowledge.”

4. Lean Toward Stories Over Humor

One semester while teaching 21 safety courses at Arizona State University, Klane conducted a study to determine which worked better: Stories or humor. He administered a test to the students at the beginning of the semester to get a baseline, then three weeks in to test knowledge gained and then finally at the end of the semester to test retention. In terms of long-term retention, students who were told stories fared better. Why? Stories lean into episodic memory (that of past experiences, but can also be created by secondhand experience) instead of semantic memory (acquired knowledge).

5. Consider the “Identifiable Victim Effect” in Building a Compelling Case

The identifiable victim effect “refers to individuals’ tendency to offer greater help to specific, identifiable victims than to anonymous, statistical victims,” researchers say. This is why organizations that fight childhood hunger, for example, often focus on a single child or create packages to sponsor a child to solicit more donations. In a safety context, sharing the personal narrative of someone who experienced a major fall may be more impactful— and elicit greater compliance — than offering statistics on the prevalence of falls from height.

6. Deploy a Good Plot Twist

Our brains love to make connections and when we do, we feel good, Klane says. A plot twist that connects multiple elements makes stories even more memorable. “When you’re communicating as a leader, think in terms of stories with a plot twist at the end; you can’t do much better,” he says.

7. Use the Hero’s Journey Story Structure

Popularized by Joseph Campbell, this structure tells the story of a hero who goes on an adventure. It includes 17 unique, recognizable parts. It’s the structure behind many Hollywood movies, from “Star Wars” to “Back to the Future.” While you may be wondering how a 17-part progression applies to a safety presentation, a recent analysis found the most-watched TED Talks also follow this structure.

8. Simplify Your Story Using Tusitala’s Model

Plot, setting and characters are the three major elements of fiction. According to this concept from Tusitala (better known as “Treasure Island” author Robert Louis Stevenson), they are the only three ways to tell a story.

“You may take a plot and fit characters to it, or you may take a character and choose incidents and situations to develop it, or you may take a certain atmosphere and get action and persons to express and realize it,” he wrote. Consider how your stories can use any of these three approaches.

9. Tell a Story Within a Story

Klane shares a story of his father’s service on the USS Birmingham during World War II fighting Kamikaze pilots. He describes gunners firing at a pilot, often well past the point they were guaranteed their own safety, to take down the plane and save countless lives. The lesson: Sometimes you just have to go for it no matter the risk because the stakes are so high.

Using this technique will help you to tell more compelling, authentic stories while maintaining connection with the essential safety information.

Finally, Klane says he is often asked, “Should I use nonfiction, fiction or fictionalized stories that combine both?” He answers, “Yes,” meaning you can use all these forms with purpose.

Safety and storytelling fit together quite well, he adds: “There is one thread and one thread only that connects and binds all great stories together. One word . . .risk.”

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