3 reasons why stories make health and safety training stick

Brain hardwired to remember emotionally charged events ​

3 reasons why stories make health and safety training stick
Susan Haldane

The learn-to-ride motorcycle course started off with a lecture on a Friday evening, in a small, stuffy college classroom. It was the end of the work week and people were tired, but the instructor was obviously an experienced rider and a practical, straight-talking teacher. I may not recall the physics of counter-steering, but I will not forget what he told us about the importance of wearing the right PPE. He had a story about going riding as a young man, wearing just jeans and a t-shirt. For whatever reason, he dumped the bike and after skidding along the shoulder of the road, ended up in the emergency room where the nurses spent hours picking little stones out of his skin. He suggested they weren’t inclined to be that gentle with under-dressed motorcyclists. If I was ever tempted to go out riding without a motorcycle jacket and boots, that story quickly came back to me.

Stories stick with us and they have power to change safety cultures.

I know in my heart that is true. There’s also a bit of science behind the ability of a true story to make training memorable.

•Empathy and co-operation: You’ve probably heard of oxytocin, the brain chemical connected to generosity, love and trust. One study from the Harvard Business Review found that hearing a story can cause our brains to release oxytocin, encouraging us to feel empathy with the feelings and behaviour of the people in the story. It makes us want to co-operate. “Stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later,” said the researchers in "Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling." “Scientific work is putting a much finer point on just how stories change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.”

•Memory: Stories also help us remember information. A molecular biologist, John Medina, writes, “When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say it creates a Post-It note that reads, ‘Remember this.’” So an emotional real-life story, like the one my motorcycle instructor told, triggers the brain to flag that information as important.

•Reality: Health and safety professionals are hard-working, committed people with a difficult job. Week by week, and month by month, they must keep reminding employees of the safe practices and procedures for their jobs. For many workers, the hazards behind those procedures may seem remote. So there’s nothing like a real live person – a parent or child or sibling who could be your next door neighbour – standing in front of you and telling their story, to remind you that the hazards are real.

This is what one individual had to say after listening to a real story of workplace tragedy:  

“Most of the time, you just hear about these incidents through the news or through social media and then after a few days you may never hear about it again. When you hear the stories about the aftermath of the incidents and see how years later, the families are still trying to cope with the loss, that really sticks with you and definitely makes you think twice before doing something unsafely, and not only to not have yourself injured, but what the effects would have on your family.”

Real stories hearts and minds, and they stay there for a very long time.