Safety kickoffs can have spark and NOT be boring. Hear John Drebinger, Jr., expert safety speaker, give great tips on engaging and informing employees.
In a safety kickoff, John suggests visual aids, cartoons and even joke telling to keep workers’ attention. John is also a magician, and uses magic tricks to deliver some messages.
John urges company owners and managers to attend safety kickoffs. Hear why they should stay for the entire meeting, not just the first five minutes.
In 26 years as a safety speaker, John Drebinger, Jr., C.Ht. CSP, has inspired workers at NASA, Exxon, Boeing, The US Army Corps of Engineers and more. He is the author of “Would You Watch Out For My Safety?” and “Mastering Safety Communication.” A link to John’s website is in the transcript below.
Part 2 of this podcast can be heard here.
Brandon Nys: Welcome to Safety Experts Talk. Visit our website at CreativeSafetySupply.com/podcast.
John Drebinger, Jr.: People keep dumping other stuff in on top of the safety kickoffs that’s not safety-related. If you’ve got 15 minutes of safety material to cover, do it and get out of there. Don’t let somebody with six other announcements and 10 other things make your 15 minute drag on to 30 minutes of other nonsense on top of it.
Dan Clark: When a safety meeting is announced, workers roll their eyes. Do they sit there half-listening, checking their smartphones? It’s time to kick safety up a notch.
Hello, I’m Dan Clark and today were talking with safety speaker John Drebinger, Jr. For a quarter century, John has been speaking before companies who want zero workplace injuries. Nicknamed “The Master Of Safety Communication”, John is a member of ASSE and has record-breaking sales with his book “Would You Watch Out For My Safety?”
John: Hello, there.
Dan: How are you today?
John: Excellent, thank you.
Dan: Well, for a first-time safety manager, how can they have better safety kickoffs? How can they make boring material more interesting?
John: I think step one is to realize that the material itself is not inherently boring. That, a lot of times, people think in terms of safety being boring. And having sat in on many many sessions on safety, I wouldn’t disagree that there are many boring safety meetings. But I think the material is inherently exciting.
I mean, literally, we’re teaching people how to get home to their family at the end of the day.
I think part of the problem is it’s the way we approach that. I heard a speaker one time who was an expert in marketing, and he asked a group of us that were at a National Speakers Association meeting “How much would people pay for the session that you’re giving?” And somebody raised their hand and said “Well, you don’t understand. I go to companies. They pay me and the people are paid to be there.”
And he said “No, I understand,” and he says “How much would the participant in the room pay for what you’re teaching?” And the person said “Well, well nothing.”
And his comment back was “Well, why should they listen?”
John: I would love to do a model of safety where the safety professionals went to the people in the workplace and said “Okay, here’s the deal. We know where there are hazards in this place that we can protect you from, but we expect you to pay us for that.”
John: “So, ah, there’s no law that says we have to protect you, but if you pay a certain amount, we’ll make sure you get home safely and let you know where the hazards are.”
That would change the whole dynamic. Obviously, that’s not going to happen, but I think as a speaker you have to ask yourself—or a safety profession or a safety trainer—“What’s the value and what I’m about to share with these people and why should they sit up, pay attention and listen?” And then, “How can I make it interesting and fun and unique?”
Dan: Well, that is, kind of, an interesting one because with that you’re offering them something and it has a definite value. They definitely want it, but they’re so used to getting the information for free or expecting it to be provided…
Dan: …that they don’t even think about it, and that’s a jolter. Can you give us an example, maybe, of a dry topic that you have made dynamic?
John: Yeah, I actually have, there’s a seminar I do called The Dynamic Safety Institute and it’s a three day class that we’ve done over the years. Different years we pick to do it. And we have a home study course. Basically, in that class, I do a session where I actually challenged people in the audience. I said “Okay, give me a subject that is so boring, that’s inherently boring.” And somebody said “Material Safety Data Sheets.” And I said “Really?” And they said “Yeah, that’s always boring.”
I and said “Okay, tell me about your process and what you do at your plant.” And explained to me what they had going on and that they had a chemical that they had to teach about. And it was tri-nitro something-or-other.
When I heard that term, I almost went asleep just by hearing the single word itself. It was, like, “Are you serious?? (laughs) Goodnight.”
John: And, I said “Well, don’t tell me about tri-nitro whatever-it-is. Tell me why do I care about it. That’s what you need to do is get my attention.” They said “Well if you inhale it, it can cause testicular atrophy.”
John: And I’m thinking “Okay, you got my attention” And the day before, by the way, they had taken me on a tour their plant. And I’m thinking “Okay, where was this stuff and I don’t remember wearing a respirator.” (laughs)
John: So, so I said “Okay, you got my attention.” And it turned out, the audience I was dealing with that day was entirely men. But the same chemical can do nasty things to women. But I was teaching them from the standpoint of communicating to your audience. So I said “What if you started the meeting this way? Instead of coming in and saying ‘I’m going to tell you about tri-nitro whatever-it-is,’ you say ‘Hey, guys. We have a chemical in our facility here that if you inhale it, you can suffer testicular atrophy.’” I said “Now you’ve got everybody’s attention.”
And then you explain to them that “Some of you guys don’t always put your respirator on and it doesn’t take a lot of this stuff to cause this effect. Now, normally at the safety meetings, we tell you where the chemical is and how to protect yourself from it, but today we’re not going to do that.” And I told them in this session, I said “Let’s take Bob in the back of the room, instead of having the usual raffle prizes like a flashlight or a first aid kit, we have envelopes with the name of the chemical and where the facility it is. And what you need to do to protect yourself. And so the winner of today’s raffle will get one of those envelopes for free. The rest you can buy them from Bob at the back room for five dollars apiece.”
John: “Otherwise, if you’re not interested, go ahead. Shrink away.”
John: (laughs) And I said “We could even change the label on the containers. Instead of the little square with all the numbers and symbols and stuff, we’ll just put a picture of a plum and a raisin.”
John: “And you can pick what result you want.” Until we, you know, that was an example of taking, kind of, the old Jonathan Winters style, where he would—for those of you that are old enough to remember Jonathan Winters. He used to do, he was one of the original improv people, and he would have people throw out a character or a job and do a routine. And that’s the same thing I did with this. I said “Throw out something that you think is boring and let me see if I can make it interesting.”
And I really believe that’s the case with any safety topic. You just have to be creative and think about it.
Dan: Well, it does make impact when you talk about their own personal involvement and interaction with a particular chemical.
John: And the other essence of what I was doing there, aside from the humor and having some fun with it, I was approaching it in the order you need to go which is you need to give them the WHY first.
John: WHY do I care about this thing? If you give me the WHY first, then I’ll listen for the details of it and the things I need to know because I now the reason why I would want to be paying attention.
If I don’t give you the WHY first, I’m telling you all the details about the chemical, where it is, how your respirator, and then somewhere along the line I go “By the way, this can cause this problem,” your ears perk up, but you’ve already missed half the presentation.
Dan: (laughs) Everybody’s going, they’re raising their hands, “Oh, what, what was this about?”
John: Yeah, exactly. Well, it’s like if you listen on the radio. You can be listening to something on the radio in your car and you don’t have your rewind button like you do on your TV at home. And all of a sudden a reporter will say some comment toward the end of a story. And you go “Ooh, wait a minute. What was that?” And it’s over. And you know there were details before you wanted to hear but it’s too late.
Dan: He wasn’t a good headline writer. He could have never worked for a newspaper.
John: Yeah, right. Exactly, yep.
Dan: Put the important stuff up front.
Dan: Get their attention. Now that we’ve got their attention, how long can you keep their attention? How long should a safety meeting be?
John: Okay, I have a couple different philosophies on that. One, I’ve done testing over the years just to see. People tell you that people’s attention spans, oh, 10 or 12 minutes based upon commercial breaks in TV and everything else. I believe people’s attention span is virtually infinite…
John: If the stuff is interesting enough. If you think in terms of, in the old days—once again for people that were around when had dial-up Internet. You would go on the Internet searching stuff and doing things and there was that little clock in the corner the told you how long you been online.
Dan: Oh, right.
John: ‘Cause that’s how they used to charge you. So, you’d look at that and all of a sudden you look up and you go “I’ve been working on this for four hours. This is crazy.” And it was like time went by as if it was nothing.
The same thing, if you take a kid—I’ve worked with the Boy Scouts since I was a kid, 11 years old. I’m on the executive board of a local Boy Scout Council out here in California, The Greater Yosemite Council. I’ve worked with kids for years and you give me any kid that is attention deficit disorder and you watch them doing something they enjoy doing they will pay attention to it for a long period of time. Give them a computer game, they won’t move. Give them something boring, their brain’s actually looking for something more stimulating. So it goes “Wait a minute. I’m going to leave this and see what else is out there.” But, if you keep their attention, you can keep them for a long time.
Years ago when I started in speaking I used to staff and do magic at events that Anthony Robbins would do, at his seminars and the like. And I would go and do magic for people waiting in lines and standing outside the door waiting to get in the room.
Dan: Now wait a second. You’re a safety expert and a magician?
John: Oh, yeah. You bet.
Dan: (laughs) Okay!
John: Yeah, I’m a member the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California, which is a private club for magicians.
Dan: Oh, wow.
John: That’s actually how I got into safety. I was a professional magician and a company called and asked me if I wanted to do a safety kickoff and use safety as the magic word. And that started 26 years ago.
Dan: Oh, that’s amazing.
Dan: Wow, and so you know how to work a crowd. You know how to keep their attention,
Dan: Well, the old phrase “eyes follow the flame.” How did you work the magic into keeping these safety meetings longer than 10 or 12 minutes and keeping them interesting?
John: Well, as I mentioned, I studied Tony Robbins stuff. I went to all his seminars. Fortunately, as a result of doing the magic for them, I got to go for free. So, that was nice (laughs) and.
Dan: Oh, great.
John: But, I mean, he’s an amazing speaker and I’d watch him go for six or eight hours without a break. Now people would get up and go to use the restroom and like, but instead of taking a formal break where everybody—you know, it takes you a half an hour to get everybody back in the room when you’ve got a room of 2500 people.
John: He’d let people go take the time to go do what they had to do, come back in. And because he knew the value of repeating concepts, if you missed two minutes here to run out to the restroom, it was going to be re-highlighted in some form someplace else. So, it wasn’t like it was a critical “Oh shoot. I missed the whole value of the three-day seminar.” But…
John: He could keep people on the edge of their seats for hours. So, that taught me that, hey, attention span is not a function of somebody being trained to spend 10 minutes. It’s the quality of the information and the skill of the presenter.
Now, that being said, I also like being compassionate with my audience. When I do a three-hour seminar—I’ve been doing a series of two hour seminars for BNSF Railway at their training center for a lot of their mechanics that are out there working on the machines that fix the railroad. We’ll take a break one hour in because I know that they’ve been listening to their opening briefing and material and stuff. And they’ve had coffee. And there’s no sense having them squirming around wondering “When’s this fool going to take a break?”
John: I can hold them for the whole time. In fact, I did an experiment years ago where I was working with one company. It was a power company. They had me do a three-hour seminar for these guys. And it was a group of linemen. So, the morning seminar, they said “Okay, for this group do 45 minutes, take a 15 minute.” 45 minutes, take a 15 minute break. I said “Okay, fine.” I said “Is that like a, you know, work rule, or something?” And they said “No it’s just these guys are linemen.” And I go “Okay.” (laughs)
John: So, I did exactly what they wanted. They were paying me. They were thrilled and loved what I did with the group and I said “In the afternoon, can I do it my way…
John: as far as breaks and stuff go, instead of yours?” And they said “Sure,” because at that point their level of confidence was way high. So, for the afternoon session I went the entire three hours without one single break.
John: And afterwards they said “My gosh, how did you do? That was incredible. You had their attention the entire time.” I said “It’s easy, they’re linemen.”
John: (laughs) They had low expectations of the audience. They thought “Hey, these guys aren’t going to pay attention that long. They need the breaks.” And I’m goin’ “Hey, these are people that have to stay tremendously focused. They’re up on a high tension power line.”
John: And you’re not going to want to be getting up-and-down off of that two or three times a day if you don’t have to.
Dan: Yeah. They’ve got enormous bladders! (laughs)
John: Yeah! Right. Well, don’t stand under them. Anyway, there’s actually, I saw in one of the safety catalogs, there’s actually a product they sell for those guys.
Dan: Long-haul trucker two liter bottle?
John: Yeah, no, it actually, I guess, absorbs water or whatever. It’s not a diaper, but it’s a containment system that’s rather unique. But, anyway.
Dan: Oh, wow. All that liquid next electricity. Not good!
John: Yeah right. So, anyway. But I had their attention the whole three hours.
John: Because it was interesting and unique. So, if you can make sure something is worthy of people’s attention and interesting, and you asked how I put the magic and stuff in there. There’s all sorts of ways of doing things. You don’t have to be a magician. Some people use cartoons. I would advise—if somebody’s a professional speaker like me—when you use cartoons you have to have the licensing permission of the cartoonist.
Dan: Oh, sure.
John: Most of the time in corporate America if you’re using a simple little cartoon to illustrate a point, it’s not likely somebody’s going to go after you. But there was a speaker out there years ago who was using, I think, Gary Larson’s material. He was showing them in, you know, PowerPoint slides and so forth and I guess somebody ratted him out. I don’t know who, but Larson’s office sent him a note saying “Yeah, we’re pleased to have you use our material, but we want a check for $75 for every time it’s shown.
Dan: Right. (laughs)
John: Like, for every person in the room. (laughs) Whatever it was. It was some amount that you wouldn’t want to have to pay.
Dan: Larson’s office was being very generous.
John: Oh, yeah.
Dan: Because they could have nailed him for penalties and …
John: Oh, yeah. You take somebody like Scott Geller who’s at Virginia Tech and he speaks. Scott has a cartoonist that was a young cartoonist at the University. And he’s paid him to make cartoons for him over the years.
John: If you look online there are a bunch of those people out there that you can find that’ll draw original material. You give them the idea and they’ll draw it. Because they’re starving artists looking for work. So you don’t have to steal somebody’s stuff. You can have your own created and go from there.
John: But as I was mentioning, for me, I use the magic. You could use cartoons. You could use stories. You could use jokes if you’re good at telling jokes, and know what’s appropriate in the workplace. A lot of things you can do to keep the meeting interesting.
I’ve been teaching for 25 years. I think I was one of the early people. A guy named Art Fettig was good at keeping people’s attention and making meetings fun. I’ve been teaching it for the past 26 years. It’s, kind of, what the beginning of my mission of working in safety was was getting people to make it fun and interesting.
I have in a sense transitioned and that’s always a part of it. But now, I teach people how to, you know, really get a point across. That’s my degree—is in speech. My studies are in communication so my focus is on effectiveness and getting results.
Keeping the meeting fun is always good and you need to do that, but that’s the secondary. That’s, kind of, like the carrier that gets the message to go along.
So, with the magic, I would write routines where I could do a trick. And the patter for the trick would actually teach the concept.
Dan: Ahh! This is the spoonful of sugar with the medicine.
John: Yeah. And then sometimes I’ll just do a trick ‘cause it’s fun. In the presentation I do now, “Would You Watch Out For My Safety,” I do an opening trick to illustrate a point. The second point I make I do a trick that’s directly related to it that illustrates the concept I’m talking about, about people getting distracted. And I use distraction—or what we call in magic “misdirection” to get the person’s mind off of what I’m doing—and I pull this trick off, which usually amazes most people in the room. For the third one, I just do a simple trick with three ropes. It has no connection to the story or the presentation as far as a teaching point. It just happens to be the third point and there’s three ropes, so…
John: It’s real simple. For the fourth point I’ll do another trick and, once again, it doesn’t teach anything. But it’s a good breaking point to jar them off base so they’re not zoning out or anything.
So that’s one of the ways I’ll do it. Sometimes I just do a trick ‘cause “Hey, this is a good point to keep people alert or reward the audience for paying attention or just… There’s great value in keeping people, a level of things being unexpected.
John: In fact, I was just having a discussion yesterday with somebody with one of the major conferences that I’m speaking to and they’d asked me to send the materials for workbook. They wanted to print workbook for everybody in the class. And I said “Well, that would be my book “Mastering Safety Communication” which everybody in the class is getting.” And they said “Well, we’d like a workbook they can take notes in.” And I said “That would be terrific. Give them, like, 20 pages of blank paper and you’re in.”
John: And they wanted, like, fill-in-the-blank stuff. And I said “First off, I don’t believe in that stuff. Because, if you foreshadow everything you’re going to do, you hand somebody a workbook that has all the stuff and it, they sit down for a full day seminar, page through the whole notebook and they think they know what you’re going to cover.
John: And sometimes they’ll tune you out. And the one that’s a huge violation—I don’t mind if somebody sends you PowerPoint slides after a presentation. I could argue for or against that. But the ones that have the PowerPoint slides all printed out ahead of time? They’re going to be reading that stuff before you get to it. There’s some serious problems with that approach.
So, I informed the people they could print up a nice blank sheet of paper and life would be good. (laughs)
Dan: That’s good. For those safety people that are trying to do this safety meeting, those that are not magicians or good joke tellers.
Dan: You know, the average Joe or Jane.
Dan: How long should the meeting last? Like a 30 minute lunch break, or a 10 minute toolbox talk?
John: Whatever fits your needs and then what level you can keep people interested and excited. I’d gauge it based upon other meetings your company does. And watch those. There was a discussion in a safety meeting was in the other day and they were talking about how certain meetings just drone on.
John: And the worst part about it was these people were committed to safety but they said “People keep dumping other stuff in on top of it that’s not safety-related.”
Dan: Oh, right.
John: So I would say keep it clean from the standpoint of, if you’ve got 15 minutes of safety material to cover, do it and get out of there.
John: Don’t let somebody with six other announcements and 10 other things make your 15 minute drag on the 30, and people then associate with you things always running late.
Dan: Oh, wow.
John: There’s something sacred about safety that you…you want to keep people’s attention. Let ‘em know “Hey, this is what we’re covering.” Boom. Do it.
If you need an hour, you take an hour. But then you don’t add 30 minutes of other nonsense on top of it just because they’re altogether. And that’s tempting. But you need to let the leadership know “Hey, look, this was the focus of today. We really want people walking away from the meeting clear on what we taught them.”
John: “And if we cloud it with all this other stuff, that’s not necessarily what they’re going to walk away with. Or they may walk away going ‘that was a waste of time.’”
Dan: “Hey, John, there’s a deal about the 401(k) plan here. And the company picnic is coming up too, so we gotta plug that.”
John: “Have a nice day.” (laughs)
John: (laughs) Oh, by the way, there’s a way around. Also the workbook thing, let me give you a tip on that.
John: If you have to have somebody that’s making all those kind of announcements, what I would then do is say “Great let me do my safety stuff then let’s take a restroom break at that point.”
John: So, you’ve wrapped up your safety stuff and turned it now over to the other guys.
Dan: You can run.
John: Right. Yeah, and then I’d still stay for the rest of their meeting but, at that point, everybody knew your segment was done.
The other thing on the workbooks—even though I’m not a big fan of them. If you’re doing a workbook—and when I do my three-day seminar we actually have a workbook we use—a tip I picked up from Tony Robbins. He does a nine-day seminar. For the nine days, you get a workbook that’s about 2½ to 3 inches thick. They don’t tell the participants this upfront but at the end of the nine days the staff passes out to everybody audience a series of pages that have the answers to all the fill-ins in the notebook.
Dan: Oh, wow. Okay.
John: Because a noise happens in a room, you miss a point. Maybe you had to go out to the restroom. Or maybe you just didn’t cover that particular item. The bigger your workbook gets, the likelihood that you skip something becomes greater.
So, what they did was they had a 12 page thing which listed “page 22 of the workbook” and it has three words to the right. Those are the three blanks. If it was a statement or a quote it would have that.
So, it’s a cool way to do it because, then, you give that to people afterwards. It still encourages them to fill in the blanks as they’re going. But, if they miss something, they’re not frustrated at the end with a workbook that’s not complete.
Dan: Right. Well, good. That sounds good.
Dan: Should company owners be involved?
John: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, people ask me “What are the real experts at safety do? The companies that really are in, you know, outstanding when it comes to safety. The safety champions. What things do they do so that we can copy that and get a similar result?” And one of the things is upper level leadership is involved in the safety meetings.
One company I used to do presentations with, they would always have a senior executive vice president at the safety kickoffs that the different divisions had. They always had somebody up in that upper level of the organization attend every division safety kickoff. And those people would stay for the entire meeting. They would show up in the morning and they would leave when the kickoff was over. In fact one of them, it was great. (laughs) At the kickoff it started off and they said “By the way, guys, I’ll be missing from the kickoff here for a few minutes. My number was drawn for random drug test today.”
John: So it was one of the top executives but they had to leave the meeting to do the random drug test. But they knew their absence would be noticed, so they actually announced why they were leaving the room.
The sad part is this same company, which 25 years ago was a huge champion of safety, over the course of 10 years became dismal at it. And their safety record is profoundly horrible. Their leadership doesn’t attend the kickoffs any more.
Conversely I was speaking at Exxon Mobil at their headquarters in Houston to probably 300 people in the cafeteria in downtown Houston. I think was a series of two or three meetings during the course of day to cover the different shifts. At one of the meetings the president of the company was sitting in the room—not making a presentation just sitting there like everybody else participating. After the meeting no less than 3 to 5 employees walked up to me and said “John. Did you know the president of the company was sitting in the meeting room?” And I said “Yeah. I’ve actually interviewed him. And before he was president he was working at a different division and I’d met him and talk to him on numerous occasions.” And they noticed that he attended the same meeting that all employees are supposed to attend.
John: That was significant. George Abbey at the Johnson Space Center was the center director responsible for 10,000 people on the site, 10,000 people off the site. When they did the “Safety Through Everyone’s Participation” program years ago when he was director, George would open the meeting whenever they had it. The only time he would miss it, and his deputy director would fill in, is if they were doing a flight readiness review at the Kennedy Space Center, which the center director for Johnson had to be there. And flight dates change. So, even though the safety meeting was scheduled, he had to head to Florida. That was the only thing that got in his way. And then, if he wasn’t there, his immediate deputy was right there at the meeting representing him.
Dan: Oh, that’s great.
John: And one other thing I tell people is “Have the leadership stay.” ‘Cause if they get up, do a five minute talk and then walk out, everybody gets it. They’re saying “Safety is our number one value” or “Safety is our priority” or whatever else. “But I’ve got other things to do. See ya.”
Dan: Yeah, right.
John: And everybody gets that. It’s like “Okay, you just told us something and then you walked away. And we have to sit here. And apparently it isn’t important for you to hear it.”
Now, there are times where there’s multiple meetings and I’ll stand up and say “By the way, the plant manager was at the first session this morning obviously we’re doing this three sessions a day for four days. They’re not going to be at every meeting.” Although, I’ve had many plant managers who are at every meeting.
John: But if they’re not going to attend every meeting I’m fine with that. As long as it’s announced that “Hey, by the way, Sally, our plant manager, made it a point to be at the second meeting. And all of their directors will be at the other meetings.” So the employees get that it wasn’t just for them and the leadership didn’t have to do anything.
Dan: Good. Management needs to be fully involved with safety kickoffs.
Dan: Next I want to ask you about getting employees on board. Especially the long time employees. You know, the ones that roll their eyes at the suggestion of a new safety program.
John: Oh, yeah.
Dan: But it will have to wait until the next podcast.
Dan: Is it okay, John, if you come back for part two?
John: (laughs) Sure.
Dan: Before we go, let’s get your web address because many people may want you to speak at their company or get your books “Would You Watch Out For My Safety” and “Mastering Safety Communication”
John: Yeah, the website is Drebinger.com. That’s D R E B I N G E R dot com.
Dan: Perfect. Thank you, John.
John: You bet. Thank you very much. Really enjoyed it.
Dan: We’ve been talking with safety speaker John Drebinger from his office in Galt, Calif. He’ll be back for part two in the next episode of Safety Experts Talk. I’m Dan Clark.
(outro music with voice over)
Brandon: Thank you for joining us on Safety Experts Talk. If you have suggestions for future podcasts, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more safety experts talking about safety news, OSHA regulations, PPE, lean, 5S, or Continuous Improvement, go to CreativeSafetySupply.com/podcast.
John Drebinger images by John Drebinger Presentions © ℗ 2005, 2015; men in hard hats by Dept. Of Labor (Pubic Domain); smokestacks, barrels by Morguefile (Pubic Domain)