Make Safety Training More Engaging With Stories

Tim Page-Bottorff leading a SafeStart workshop

A safety instructor’s teaching style has a dramatic impact on the effectiveness of classroom training. How many people remember all the key content of a boring or repetitive safety training session? Very few, if any. Even if the safety trainer is knowledgeable, if their attitude and ability to engage is lacking then the training will be too.

According to a popular Humor in Safety webinar, there are a few steps any safety professional can take to make their training sessions more engaging. And the more engaging, interactive and fun the class is, the more likely important learning points will be remembered and put into practice. One of the most effective tools for achieving this is using stories. Tim Page-Bottorff, safety speaker and the author of the webinar, says:

Stories stick like glue... Shoot! I can still remember stories told to me way back in 1976! The point I am trying to make is that stories can linger in a good way, and I often remember them when I’m doing similar activities and will modify my behavior to avoid the injury or close call that happened in the story I was told.

The safety instructor should be a storyteller (and should also ask participants to share their own stories too). As Tim points out, “when you share a story to prove a point anecdotally, you are actually building a bridge to the students who are going to be more willing to share their personal stories.”

Stories play straight into people’s learning abilities—a story is a connection of cause and effect, which is exactly how humans reason. Humans are hardwired to think in narrative terms, which makes stories a useful teaching tool.

Listening to a lecture and reading a document are the most common forms of classroom training but unfortunately, they’re not particularly effective. When people listen to a speech or read a text, they only use the parts of their brain necessary for decoding the meaning of the words, which makes the information less likely to be remembered.

However, when it comes to stories, a person’s whole brain is involved in processing the information. Hearing a story that makes a specific point or is connected to the subject of the safety training makes it more likely that workers will retain relevant information because the more involved the brain is in something, the more likely the person is to remember it.

None of this is to say that safety training should suddenly become storytime. As Tim says in his talk (the whole thing can be watched for free online), sprinkling a story or two throughout the training should be enough. What’s more important than telling lots of stories is telling them properly:

  • Effective stories are typically about a situation that your audience can relate to, and should be told from your point of view.
  • Describing smells and textures (a greasy compressor that smelled of burnt oil) works better than simply naming objects (the press).
  • Using interesting, new metaphors (having a fuzzy, bleary day) is more effective than using old ones (having a rough day).
  • Keep stories short and to the point—avoid rambling or getting off topic.
  • As with the rest of the safety training, practice telling the story a few times before you tell it to an audience.

You don’t have to be a creative writer to be a trainer but you should try to use evocative vocabulary and words describing motion to tell a story. This engages much larger areas of the participants’ brains, making them more receptive and more likely to remember the class.

For more advice on how to harness the power of storytelling in your next training session, check out the Humor in Safety webinar. Because better stories will make the training more enjoyable, memorable and effective.