Hundreds of Post-It notes stuck to a wallAdvertisers and marketeers talk about ‘Effective Frequency’ in getting messages to stick. Some advocate the ‘say it three times’ approach, others seven, though research has suggested anywhere between 6-20 times is the key.

Clearly, there’s no right answer to how many times you should repeat a message, but there’s undoubtedly something of interest here for safety leaders like us, trying to get our safety message to stick.

There are a couple things though, which everyone generally agrees on: messages are more effective and authentic when repeated – and for this you need leadership, commitment and tenacity.

No doubt you’ll remember one or more of the oft repeated slogans below which illustrate that the journey of reinforcement and repetition never ends:

  • Just Do it – Nike, started in 1988
  • Melts in your mouth, not in your hands – M&Ms, used since 1954
  • Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach – Heineken beer, 1970’s
  • Vorsprung Durch Technik – Audi, used since the 1980’s
  • Das Auto – only recently adopted as the official VW slogan, 2014

Thomas Smith, in his book ‘Successful Advertising’ (published 130 years ago) recognized that as a savvy marketer “more frequency = more effective.” In fact, he suggested that it can take up to 20 exposures before a message sinks in!

What does this mean for safety?

Below, I’ve substituted typical reactions to a safety conversation, based on the number of times someone has been involved in one. This is to give you some indication of how the 3-20 exposures theory might have some mileage in culture change, and demonstrate the need for commitment and tenacity when you sell your message.

  1. 1st time people look at you, and don’t hear.
  2. 2nd time, they have a fleeting sense that they’ve been here before.
  3. 3rd time, they actually get properly involved.
  4. 4th time, they thumb their nose at it, thinking the previous time had seen this one off
  5. 5th time, they get a little irritated with it.
  6. 6th time, they think, “Here’s that so and so person again.”
  7. 7th time, they wonder if they’re missing out on something when they hear of others being praised.
  8. 8th time, they ask their colleagues their views.
  9. 9th time, they see improvements and start to feel the conversations have value.
  10. 10th time, they commit to the approach.

Today, JOMC keep Thomas Smith’s message alive in organisations around the world by helping them change culture through engaging communication. We’ve found that if you get 10-25% of your employees committed to talking about safety in a regular, structured way you’ll soon reach a tipping point into sustainable change. This means other employees become involved too, and participate in safety conversations. The secret to this change, as Smith suggested, is repetition – reinforcing the priority of safety and why everyone believes it’s important.

Simply put, we’ve found that the more you talk about safety, the safer you get. And the more positive conversations you have, which recognise and reward colleagues for what they do well, day in, day out – the safer you get.

That’s because conversations, authenticity, openness and transparency build trust, and make people believe that their personal safety is actually valued and important to the organisation.

As BT said many times in 1994, “It’s good to talk”.