How WHS professionals can benefit from storytelling

Storytelling is an easy way to help boost engagement and the WHS profession is primed for storytelling and the benefits it can provide in terms of improved communication, according to an expert in the area.

“I think businesses are starting to catch on to the power of storytelling and how it can clarify their messaging but often I see over complicated narratives, covered in a pinch of corporate salt,” said David List, founder of storytelling and branding agency, List Media.

Companies spend a good deal of time and money trying to get people to buy or use their services, but he said that these efforts often don’t meet expectations and are lost to the “marketing budget” without a second thought. 

“So, any way to boost their ROI is worth listening to,” said List, who was speaking ahead of the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference 2024, which will be held in Melbourne at the Melbourne Convention Centre from 21-23 May.

List cited a 2012 Harvard University study, which found that people devote approximately 30-40 per cent of their speech output solely to informing others of their own subjective experiences, and it concluded that people are inclined to share their thoughts because it is an intrinsically rewarding activity, akin to primary rewards like food and sex.

“But what does this have to do with business? Well, like it or not most businesses receive inbound leads from word of mouth, this is a direct form of self-disclosure. So, controlling the narrative, or what people say about you is imperative for success,” said List.

List gave the example of the OHS Act: “a dry, informational document offering little in the way of engagement. But attach stories to these boring clauses, then suddenly, the pages come alive and more importantly people remember,” he said.

“For example, early in my career as an electrician, JSAs were little more than a mandatory inconvenience and avoiding safety was my modus operandi. But this all changed when a new manager started and my work.”

List recalled that this manager walked with a limp and clearly suffered from back pain. One afternoon, List recalled he gathered up the courage to ask him why he walked with a limp.

The manager proceeded to tell List how, as a young electrician, he had to run a cable through an 8-metre high exterior wall of a supermarket. 

He used a three-tier extension ladder and ascending eight meters and attempted to pull the cable through, List said. 

“After several attempts at pulling the cable through, he pulled so hard that he lost his balance and fell eight meters into a loading bay,” he said.

“His legs, pelvis, and lower back were completely shattered, but miraculously, he was still conscious. In fact, he was awake for the mobile intensive care ambulance paramedics to arrive and declare ‘this is a bad one.’

“Obviously, he survived, but he lost his mobility, marriage and ability to work. This, for me, was an ‘oh crap’ moment, as I realised this could easily have been me. I didn’t know it then, but the power of his story may have saved my life.

“Unfortunately, these stories are all too common, but as an OHS professional you can leverage these experiences to help cement reasoning to policy updates, effecting cultural change or influencing management,” said List.

While many professionals might think storytelling in business is too hard and “should be left to Disney or Stephen King”, List said the process is easier than most think, and recommended the use of an “ABT” process which stands for “and”, “but” and “therefore”.

“These three words are key prompts in crafting the perfect narrative,” said List, who explained that the ABT process was developed by Randy Olsan, a filmmaker and scientist who has simplified the storytelling process into its fundamental form. 

“‘And’ invokes agreement, ‘but’ adds conflict and ‘therefore’ is the consequence.”

He gave the example of an incident in which a truck backed over a worker’s leg, and how this might be better communicated through utilising the ABT steps.

“Say you want to highlight an incident where a truck backed over a worker’s leg. Many people will often spell out the facts with a series of ‘and’ statements, such as, ‘Matty was working on a reflector on a road, and he laid down, and he there was no barrier, and the truck reversed over his leg.’”

Using the ABT model, List provided an alternative and more effective way of telling the story: “Yesterday, Matty was fixing a reflector on the road and thought he had all his WHS procedures in place. But he forgot one thing: the barricade. Therefore, there was nothing to stop the truck back right over his leg,” he said.

“If you are indeed serious about becoming the OHS expert, communicating clearly and engaging your audience using the ABT will truly help boost your reputation and build your personal brand.”

List will be speaking at the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference 2024, which will be held in Melbourne at the Melbourne Convention Centre from 21-23 May. The conference will offer three days of workshops, presentations, keynote speeches, networking events and a conference dinner. Delegates will have the opportunity to learn from their peers, share knowledge and grow their professional networks. For more information email [email protected], call (03) 8336 1995 or visit the event website.