What's Your Story? Train Your Next Audience By Painting a Picture With Words

Safety Decisions - April 2020
By: Charles J. Douros
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Stories are not facts, figures, or raw data. A good story can do something raw data cannot: it can elicit an emotional response and provoke you to think differently if only for a moment. A great story helps persuade, influence, and move people to action. The strongest stories have a beginning, middle, and end, even if that timeline is implied and left to the imagination. Data, facts, figures, and lists simply don't have that kind of influence and power over the audience. On its best day, a bar graph, a pivot table, an executive summary is just not as compelling as a good story. Raw data leaves little to the imagination; it's hard to have a genuine emotional response staring at an Excel spreadsheet.

Professional trainers leverage storytelling by weaving stories into the curriculum. This allows the audience a choice: they can connect academically (with the data) or feel something emotionally (with the story). Either way, a good story triggers a cognitive pause; it gives you a reason to listen, and that is, after all, the goal isn't it? As your trainer, I want to impart to you, the knowledge I have—the knowledge you need—to trigger a new or different set of behaviors that are best suited for the work we're asking you to do. Through the use of storytelling, the trainer may invite you on a journey that can take place over years and years or punch you in the gut with an anecdote that takes place in a matter of minutes.

Take, for example, this story written by Ernest Hemingway. Some say this is the shortest story ever written . . . and it's brilliant.

"For sale, baby shoes, never worn."

While it's unreasonable to expect any mortal human to be as clever, as brilliant, as efficient with the written word as the late Ernest Hemingway, could you incorporate some of your own stories into your next training class? Do you have one essential story to tell in bitesize parts throughout the duration of the session, or could you select one or two from a bank of several shorter stories?

Captivate Your Audience In Thirty Seconds . . . Or Else

I get it. There's nothing sexy about 29 CFR 1910.146, Permit-Required Confined Spaces, or any of the ensuing 15 pages of the standard. The same can be said for any other OSHA standard ever written. The material is boring! Valuable, but boring. Not too long ago, I had the pleasure of spending my Saturday morning with a group of maintenance technicians at a garlic and onion processing plant. As they settled in, I unpacked my materials, preparing to spend the next four hours teaching permit-required confined space entry. I anticipated an uphill battle, trying to present the information in a way that could captivate this hardened maintenance team. It's going to be a tough sell, I said to myself. The permit-required confined space standard (and its 177 subparts) is complicated, requires calculations, and a certain safety acumen. I knew if I started with, "Today, we're going to learn about 29 CFR 1910.146, Permit-Req . . ." I'd lose them before I even finished my sentence. They would be shifting in their seats, folding their arms, thinking about something . . . anything . . . other than confined space entry, right out of the gate. I knew what I had to do.

I started with a story. By "start," I mean it in the most literal sense of the word. I approached the stage with a measured, thoughtful gait. Slow your roll. Don't take it by storm, I thought to myself. Once I squared-off with the audience, I gave everyone a pensive glance, not a smile, that best emphasized the next words out of my mouth; then I began.

"I wish you all could have known my friend, Max House. Max was a giant among men. He looked like Shaquille O'Neal. All six-foot-eleven-inches of him still wasn't tall enough to help, the day he fell nearly twenty feet, into a stinky sewer through an open manhole on Main Street. There were no physical barriers, no signs or permits, no attendants to warn him. One second he was fine, and in an instant his life changed forever as he lay unconscious at the bottom of the sewer. Today, we're here to talk about the confined space standard, and how to prevent something like this from ever happening again."

Now that's an opening!

Set The Pace

It took less than thirty seconds to paint a picture that anyone in the audience can relate to. In that brief opening, I told a story with a distinct beginning (an introduction to Max), middle (he fell twenty feet into a hole), and an end (in an instant his life changed forever). The story was easy to relate to, there was something in it for everyone in the audience. Then, the final thought established relevance to the training topic. Let's deconstruct it and see why this works.

The story began before I ever took the stage. Knowing the opening was going to be a shocker, somewhat ominous, I walked deliberately, pensively to the microphone. Then, a quick glance matched the tone and tenor of the first words to be spoken. I did not confuse the audience with an overly enthusiastic, inauthentic smile, or cheerful greeting.

It was important to make it personal, right out of the gate, and I let the audience know it. I made a pact with the audience; implied trust in them. You're going to get to know a friend of mine, and I trust you enough to tell you his name (and the name itself will be memorable and catchy; one the audience will not soon forget.) To seal the deal, I provided a visual reference, giant among men, and purposely implanted an image of one of the most famous pop-culture examples of big, giant men, Shaquille O'Neal.

The story immediately took a dark turn—catching the audience off guard— and established relevance to the subject matter with the visual imagery of a huge man falling through an open manhole into a stinky sewer on Main Street. Here, I carefully selected two words to help tell the story: stinky incited the sense of smell and gave the listener something else to relate. Everyone knows what a stinky sewer smells like. Similarly, I chose to use the imagery of Main Street, because everybody knows what their version of Main Street looks like.

Finally, I made the case for topic relevance by referencing the absence of barriers, permits, signs, and attendants. The audience makes an immediate connection to the reason they are in the class, and they can now connect the dots: they're even given a premonition to what will be taught in the remainder of the class. To be sure the audience gets it, I tell them what will be discussed today, the confined space standard.

Now the stage is set; the training can begin.

Putting Your Story To Work In A Training Setting

It's one thing to nail the opening, and another to keep the rest of the class just as interesting. A great story, or collection of stories told at just the right time, can help. There's a catch. Before considering where to place a story in your training session, consider whether it even belongs. What are you trying to achieve by telling the story? It's not good enough to tell a story just because it's a great story. Even the most riveting tales can be time wasted, if not strategically placed to emphasize or support the material that surrounds it. Once, while instructing a Leadership Safety Coaching workshop, I told a funny (and self-deprecating) story that had always garnered lots of laughs from other audiences but fell on deaf ears this time. Puzzled with the poor reception, I listened to the session recording later that evening and realized I had inadvertently told the story at the wrong point in the presentation and took it completely out of context. Right story, wrong time, and . . .Thud!

Engage The Audience

Whether you choose to weave your essential story through your entire training session one segment at a time, or you decide to tell several shorter stories to emphasize certain points, the audience is craving—even anticipating—a chance to invest in the outcome. Motivational speakers who have overcome tremendous tragedy and life-altering misfortune, against all odds, use this skill masterfully. They leverage an essential story, drawing the audience in. Usually quickly, the stage is set, and the audience knows, or thinks they know, what is to come. Then, the presenter drops a story here and a story there. Safety trainers can use this same strategy to engage an audience. It doesn't have to be your story, but it does have to be relevant to the course material.

I encounter hundreds of safety leaders in my work each year. Inevitably, whether we are crafting a safety strategy together, teaching leaders to be better safety coaches, or assessing a company's safety culture, there comes a moment of truth where they admit to gaps in their training systems. Eventually, they'll ask, How can I improve my training sessions?

  • Develop an essential story that nobody can tell as well as you.
  • Be prepared to tell the story in its entirety or break into smaller bits to leverage during your training sessions.
  • Develop a story inventory with different stories of varying lengths and intended impact (wistful, funny, provocative, etc.)
  • Cultivate, preen, and populate existing stories with new details.
  • Plan adequate time for stories in future training sessions.
  • Practice. Tell the same story to different audiences and gauge their response; what is working and what isn't?

If you or your organization want to learn more about how to improve your safety culture, develop leaders to become safety coaches, or create an effective long-term safety strategy, contact us here, info@proactsafety.com, 936.273.8700, or visit proactsafety.com.


1 Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner theorized this often cited statistic https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerome_Bruner


Charles J. Douros, CSM, is senior consultant for ProAct Safety. Organizations in every major industry engage Charles to advise and guide them on the journey to achieve and sustain safety excellence, strategy, organizational development and safety culture. In addition to those responsibilities, Charles serves as 2020 Delegate, supporting the National Safety Council's Board of Directors. Encapsulating a 35-year management career, Charles has been a business owner, safety executive and regional EHS Director for a Fortune 100 Company. Charles is a proud member of the National Safety Council, ASSP, and Kentucky Safety and Health Network and holds a Six Sigma green belt with extensive experience in Lean Manufacturing. He is a frequent speaker and prolific writer in the safety industry. His publications appear in EHS Today, ISHN, IndustryWeek, EHS Daily Advisor, Safety Decisions Magazine and Occupational Safety & Health Magazine, among others. Reach Charles at 936.273.8705 or or info@ProActSafety.com.

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