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All About You: Let me tell you a story: How good storytelling can move people to action

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

We all love stories. Whether they come from books, movies, plays or part of talks, stories capture our attention and move us unlike any other kind of communication.

Why is that? For one, our life is a story. Although it might not have all the unusual events that occur in a novel, your life still contains the basic elements of a story, which is merely a narrative or explanation of something that happened.

I’ve seen the power of a story move people. When I became a safety and health coordinator in the nuclear industry, I was responsible for a sitewide management training program called Safety Management Accountability Training.

I wasn’t getting much support from the vice presidents and other managers. So, I asked my boss if I could give a short presentation at the quarterly senior-management meeting.

Instead of showing statistics about safety, I started my presentation by passing around a wallet-sized picture of my daughter, Amber. She was a toddler at the time and had just started walking. It was an atypical start to what I’m sure everyone thought would be a more information-based presentation. (Yes, I was nervous about beginning this way.)

Next, I told a story about Amber falling down a few steps. She was injured seriously enough to be taken to the hospital, but, thankfully, recovered completely. I had meant to replace a temporary barrier in front of the stairway with a permanent one, but had been busy at work and kept putting it off.

After everyone saw Amber’s picture, I explained that although I love my daughter deeply, I still allowed my hectic work schedule to override a more important responsibility I had as Amber’s father: to protect her.

Then, boldly, but with tact, I tied in what happened with Amber to what was happening with the SMAT program and senior management support. It worked brilliantly. The engineering vice president became a “SMAT champion” and, from that day forward, I garnered all the support and resources I needed.

You, too, can use stories – both at work and home – to move your audience to action, whether it’s through a one-on-one encounter or in front of a large group. The stories you tell don’t just have to be about accidents to show how important it is to work safely. Sure, if told well, accident stories can have a strong impact on your audience. However, stories about overcoming hardship, humorous turnarounds, surprise successes and many other events that happen throughout our lives are powerful tools, too.

Here are three tips to help you better use stories:

  1. Capture your own. Pay attention to events in your life that you might be able to use. The best stories to inspire or instruct are true. I sometimes write down a brief description when something happens to me that I might be able to use as a story. Just a word or two often is enough of a reminder.
  2. Read or listen to books on storytelling. Two of my recent favorites are “The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On and Others Don’t” by Carmine Gallo, and “Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story” by Peter Guber.
  3. Practice your storytelling skills. Tell stories to yourself out loud when no one is around. Also, pay attention to how people respond when you tell a story. You’ll be surprised how much purposely practicing can improve your skills.

Business magnate Richard Branson said, “The art of storytelling can be used to drive change.” That change also can be inside us. The stories we tell ourselves about our own lives can have a profound effect on how we feel and act. If you put a positive spin on your life events, they can inspire you to take positive action. Likewise, with people we interact with, a story well told can have a powerful influence.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Richard Hawk helps safety professionals become better leaders through his keynotes, workshops, articles and books so they can create vibrant safety cultures. His popular “Mindfully Safe” keynote teaches employees how to focus better and improve their situational awareness, a key skill to preventing incidents. To contact Richard, visit makesafetyfun.com.

 

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