How the Tourism Industry Makes Great Content Designers: Part 1 Safety Talks
Updated: Feb 8
I worked in the outdoor adventure industry for almost two decades. If there is anything I’ve learned during that time, it’s the art of providing important information in a delightful way to a broad audience.
Part 1: Safety Talks
Yeah, ok. I’m from Colorado, so “safety talk“ is often code for smoking a joint. The term originated and diverged from the speech an outdoor adventure trip leader gives their lamb participants as they left the premise for the wilderness. Let's talk whitewater rafting trips.
When a safety talk is given, folks are squeezed into a retired school bus, which means it is loud inside once the wheels hit the highway. They're stuffed into stinky company life jackets and rented neoprene booties and wetsuits, their feet in someone else’s bootie juice from the trip before, and wondering if they will ever make it back to the company parking lot/if they will divorce their husband as soon as they come back alive. The windows get put down to relieve them of the heat and smell, if they’re lucky, and seated at an operable window. The bus driver usually has a funny name like Hawaii Al, who, in my experience, was never Hawaiian though he wore loud Hawaiian shirts every day.
The trick is to make it entertaining and memorable.
Trip leaders get paid a generous $5 extra per trip. Their responsibilities include the safety talk, the after-river, and tip talk, making sure the right number of all equipment is loaded on the bus and trailer, carrying the radio and communicating to base, carrying the first aid kit, and assigning crews to the guide staff on the trip. Good trip leaders make trips go better, and bad trip leaders can set a funereal tone for the whole adventure.
The safety talk is a critical trip component. You have to have it memorized. It covers everything from “what is a paddle“ to “this is the gesture you use if you are in danger and need immediate medical help.” Some nervous customers would change their minds if the trip leader could not cushion the risks in enough jokes. The trick is to make it entertaining and memorable. It’s a fine balance, too, between being a parade of laughs and making sure people understand what a throw bag is if they go for a swim or how to avoid foot entrapment in the river bed. (Don’t stand up in a swift river basically ever.) "You will probably be fine on this outdoor adventure, but there is a chance of death." How do you say that so people don't stampede out the bus door?
As a 5’0” female guide, I had to overcompensate with toughness and leadership so that my guests weren’t as scared they were being led by a little girl and not one of the bronzed Adoni I led. It helped me to be in a position of authority from the get-go. So I rarely minded the extra duties because of the edge. Heck, I would even give the safety talk and after-river talk if I wasn't the trip leader. *I won Trip Leader of the year 2008 for our company "Guide Olympics."
But let’s talk about the customers squeezed onto the bus. Who are they?
Many hail from Texas. Who are we kidding-–it's Colorado, their vacation mecca. But most of the time, it was a hodgepodge collection of people. Country mice, city mice, international travelers, native English speakers, non-native English speakers, non-English speakers (Adelante, dos!), military, bachelorette parties, Boys Scouts, families with crying or smiling children, retired couples, people with disabilities, the list goes on.
People like whitewater rafting. Raft guides must make the trip accessible to a wide range of abilities and ages. Tourism is for everyone.
Regardless of where they're from or who they are, most customers act like ducks out of the water and have mental models that always made me laugh-sigh, like their fearlessness driving100 mph on their Texas interstates and then their genuine fear, though statistically unlikely, of drowning. It's an awkward situation; I was not unempathetic.
I estimated one summer, I gave the safety talk at least 100 times. It is the Groundhog's Day of whitewater rafting (I had to throw that in as today is Groundhog's Day.) Doing something 100 times makes it easy, or at least, makes it not a fearful event. I recommend it. You get in a groove. Try out one joke on the morning crew; when that fails, switch back to standard for the afternoon or get creative in another way. Use exaggerated facial expressions and body movements. Exercise voice tonalities-heck, use different voices, sing songs! Practice projecting your voice over highway noise and back thirty feet. Use props. Encourage audience participation. Make them repeat, yell after you. Side wink to include them in the jokes. Point out the scenery. Make it easy to understand the adventure's terrain.
But always gauge the audience's reaction. There are many ways to skin a cat, more than one way to shear a sheep, etc. Public speaking and, really, public coaching requires a quick crowd size-up and an estimation of what kind of tone you strike with your safety speech. So they listen to you. So the trip will go better if there is an accident.
You’re designing an experience using the same tools as designers: User Research: do an audience audit, A/B test material, ask for feedback from stakeholders (your boss and fellow guides who depend on you to get it right every time.)
Content Design: prototype (practice), always refer to the guidelines (use the laminated list of talking points if you draw a blank,) use microcopy (make it easy to understand quickly), iterate, reiterate.
Service Design: Create tangible and intangible artifacts for your guests. Give them a narrative, a story, a cheesy joke that they can share with you and then share with others when they get back home or on their Facebook. Create a community from your audience. Engage the guests.
Great safety talk givers can throw in a “Remember: you can always tip over your guide, but you can never overtip them” without landing flat. The best safety talk givers get tipped by people on the trip who WEREN'T their personal crew! How would it translate to content design?