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Persuading Others Toward a Culture of Safety

Storytelling is a powerful tool to convince others to comply with safety guidelines

by
Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT

Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT, is senior safety editor for Lab Manager. His EHS and risk career spans more than three decades in various roles as a...

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One of the hardest things to do is persuade others, but storytelling can help in obvious and hidden ways. The most frequent advice from persuasion research is to empathize. Stories can show empathy for or between characters regardless of their failings. 

Seventeenth century scientist and inventor Blaise Pascal and today’s experts agree—never argue using a win-or-lose approach. Stories present your case and details without you arguing it. 

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Charles Darwin once advised, “Preemptively address the counter argument, then caulk the holes water-tight.” Stories can add details that address counter arguments before your reader/listener thinks of them. 

Why do stories work for risks and risk perceptions?

One-hundred thousand years ago on the savanna our ancestors told stories, not information or data. It’s in our DNA; we’re wired for stories. They helped us survive then and continue to now. We bond over stories told around the campfire or Bunsen burner.1,2 

Stories are much more persuasive and convincing than data or information.

We use the experiential or affective risk system for decisions more than we use the analytical or logical system.3 Every good story has one thing in common—risk4, and labs are full of risks. People have their own ideas and risk perceptions—each is valid for them, and they all co-exist. Forcing your perception on others won’t work. However, we care about each other, so a good story gets to what’s at stake quickly.5 

Why do stories work for people’s lives?

Our lives are in plot-like story form. It’s how we naturally communicate. An affective story is effective communication. Stories pack so much into a single telling—characters, a plot, action, surprises, bonding, relatedness, empathy, context, and more. 

If someone asks, “What happened?” the answer is typically a story, not a dry case study nor bullet point. Stories are easily remembered.

Stories can contain data, details, and your context (not the listener’s). Characters like us are relatable, and even flawed characters appeal—they’re human. As in life, supporting characters are like moons orbiting around the protagonist. They play important roles. We want to see them struggle and ultimately succeed. That’s when we might experience narrative transportation where we can feel like we’re vicariously in their place in the story. It’s the storyteller’s goal and the most studied aspect of stories.6 

Why do certain story parts matter?

Gustav Freytag’s five-part story structure improved on Horace’s original idea. These make natural sense to listeners/readers. This preference for five parts was validated by Quesenbury and Coolsen in 2014 via Super Bowl ads over two years, according to study participants. 

There’s an entire genre of nonfiction that uses a pattern of narrative, data, narrative, data, narrative, etc. called creative nonfiction.1,6 This works well for typical lab incidents. 

In experiments by Paul Zak, PhD, his team found that in affective (i.e., emotionally laden) stories, we secrete cortisol during tension-building, oxytocin at story peak or climax, and a shot of dopamine during a heartfelt ending in its resolution or denouement. Their empiric research further validates emotional stories and the five-part structure.7

#Story PartWhat's going onHormone secreted
1ExpositionSettingNone
2Rising actionTension buildsCortisol
3PeakClimaxOxytocin
4Descending actionTension easesNone
5DenouementResolutionDopamine

Stories are entertaining, keep our attention, and surprise us. We have a need for cognitive closure (NFCC), so a story plot keeps us glued and needing to learn what happens. Humans love to be surprised, so this equation works; expectation – result = gap (and surprise). As professor Vera Tobin says, we’re wired for plot twists that explain and surprise us at the end—it feeds our NFCC. Your story receiver’s brain is open and primed for your all-important final message, so deliver it. 

Key points

Persuasion, risk, safety culture, and stories merge into a powerful approach. Stories are much more persuasive and convincing than data or information. We need emotions and what’s at stake, relatable characters, expectation – result = gap, a five-part structure, and narrative transportation. 

What doesn’t work? Info or data only, revealing all too early, a chronology of events, case studies, and predictability. 

See how these all interrelate in the following story. 

How a Failed Experiment Led to Safety Culture

I read the email. “There’s been an implosion in a lab. Injuries were minor and transient.” Well, could be worse; it wasn’t an explosion. Time to gather the team.

Frank, our safety coordinator, and Lydia, our design engineer, were concerned about how our after action would go, so we met beforehand to strategize. 

“What’s our approach?”

I smiled. “Empathy and help, not compliance.” Frank raised an eyebrow and Lydia squinted a bit. “Just follow my lead—you’ll both do fine.”  

During our “after action,” the researcher said something none of us ever expected. 

Our after action

I walked into the lab and saw Lydia and Frank.  Then I noticed the researcher, Abe. He had that deer-in-the-headlights look. I knew what to ask. I looked at Abe. “How are you and the others? Is everyone okay?” 

Abe sighed. “We’re all fine, thanks. Sue had some dizziness and Yong had a little hearing loss. But both were better the next day.” 

“That’s great, Abe, we’re always glad when everyone recovers. So, tell us about your research—we’re curious about your experimental vacuum enclosure.”

Abe started describing what he was attempting.  After a bit, Lydia asked him about its construction. “So, I see the walls are quarter-inch thick sheets. And the bolts go through pre-drilled holes. We could help with procuring thicker material and I know a way to attach them without drilling holes, which weaken it.”

Abe smiled. “That’d be great, thanks!”

We continued helping him with his redesign. We never discussed compliance nor what was wrong or unsafe. We described risk in terms of the degrees of risks to his research and the associated effects to him and others, always expressing care and concern. 

We focused on his needs and goals. Each of us adding something with me mostly being a bridge and facilitator, keeping us moving forward and enjoying the camaraderie and team atmosphere. 

Abe’s surprising comment

It’d been going great, plenty of friendly and helpful conversations. That was when Abe stopped and turned to me. “I need to tell you something and I want you to know it’s a compliment.”

Everyone stopped and looked at us. I was intrigued and thought, this should be good. I smiled at him. “Okay.”

Abe said. “You’re not like any safety or risk professional I’ve ever worked with.”

My smile widened. “Abe, I know exactly what you mean. And I take it as a compliment.”

Everyone smiled in relief. Lydia and Frank continued to provide helpful guidance on Abe’s build and redesign. My role was done. I just watched and smiled.

It hit me as I looked at our little team. “I wish we had video of our discussions. This is what safety culture looks like!” They all smiled and nodded. 

Safety culture as an outcome

Weeks later I happened to be over in Frank and Lydia’s building and saw them. “Hey, how’s our buddy Abe doing?”

They both nodded. “He’s doing well.”

Lydia continued, “His research enclosure is coming along. He’ll likely retest it soon.”

Frank added, “He told us we’re invited to the test.”

I smiled. “That’s great! Let me know how it goes.” 

Resolution

A few months later I was walking across campus and spotted Abe. “Hey, how’s it going?” 

He seemed excited. “It’s great. I got it to work.”

I smiled. “No way! It held? I’m impressed.”

“Yup. I got my data, too. Thanks again for the help.”

I smiled. “We were happy to help, that’s what we’re here for.” 

“See you later!” Abe said as he waved goodbye.

“See you!” Only I didn’t see him again. Abe graduated and I left for my next risk and story-filled chapter in my journey. 

So, what’s your story?

References: 

1. Herman, David. 2017. Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind.

2. Wiessner, Polly. 2014. “Embers of Society: Firelight Talk among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen”  

3. Slovic, Paul. 2004. “Risk as analysis and risk as feelings: Some thoughts about affect, reason, risk, and rationality.” Risk Analysis.

4. McKee, Robert. 1997. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. 1997. ReganBooks.

5. Gutkind, Lee. 2012. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. Da Capo Press/Lifelong Books.

6. Green and Brock. 2000. “The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 

7. Zak, Paul. 2015. “Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative”. Cerebrum. Dana Foundation.