Visual storytelling is the art of creating a narrative through visuals that both engages and empowers your audience and drives growth for your business. In this article, we’ll look at why visual storytelling is an essential tool for marketers to master, and provide some down-to-earth strategies to help you get started telling better stories today.
Why Visual Storytelling?
Humans are not rational creatures. Strong emotions, not information, are what drive our decisions. When presented with “factual” information alone, only a small part of our brain responds. Wrapping information in a story can dramatically change how we process and interpret that same information.
In the movie “Inception,” Dom, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a kind of “spy” who can enter people’s minds through their dreams and discover their secrets. In the movie, he’s given an even bigger challenge: not discovering a secret, but planting an idea in their mind and making the person think they came up with it themselves.
That’s every marketer’s dream, but luckily for you there’s a way to do it in real life (and with a lot fewer car chases and gunfights).
Visual storytelling can make subtle cues in the minds of your audience and inspire the right ideas, emotions and desires to get them to take action.
How Our Minds Respond To Stories
A study conducted at Washington University in St. Louis revealed an interesting pattern when examining the brain activity of those listening to a story. Take a look below at how different areas of the brain light up when describing various elements of a story.
What’s interesting about this study is how similar the brain activity is when experiencing a story and actually carrying out those actions in real life. As far as our brains are concerned, a story and imagining ourselves in the character’s shoes is just as authentic as reality.
What does this mean for you? It means if you can create a story that can capture the imagination and desire of your audience, you can walk them through “The Buyer’s Journey,” build trust, and incite action.
How Our Minds Respond To Visuals
But what about visuals? Is a good written story just as powerful as a visual story?
A recent study showed that recall of information increased from 10% to 65% when adding visuals to written content.
Visuals don’t just impact our memories, they may actually influence our decision making. Jan Brascamp, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, conducted a study to answer just this question. What he found was that the visual cortex (the part of the brain that processes sight) can impact our decisions and perceptions without any help from the more “rational” areas of our mind typically associated with decision making.
“That is one sense in which our study is counterintuitive and surprising… The part of the brain that is responsible for seeing, for the apparently ‘simple’ act of generating the picture in our mind’s eye, turns out to have the ability to do something akin to choosing, as it actively switches between different interpretations of the visual input without any help from traditional ‘higher level’ areas of the brain.”
Another study conducted by Laura Smarandescu at Iowa State University examined the habits of children at a summer camp for kids with diabetes. They found that showing images of a salad on their lunch menu dramatically increased how frequently salads would be ordered.
“They found salad consumption among kids increased as much as 90 percent when a digital display showed a rotating image of the salad.”
When To Use Visual Storytelling
Visual storytelling can be a useful tool whenever your audience needs to make a decision. This means there’s a place for storytelling almost any time you come into contact with your audience. The trick is to decide early what decision you want to speak to in your story.
Though it’s unlikely your audience will explicitly ask themselves these questions, it’s something they’re subconsciously doing all the time:
- Should I keep reading/watching this content?
- Should I download this resource?
- Should I sign up for this webinar?
- Do I trust this person?
- Should I buy this product?
- Should I click through this email?
Since we’re almost always challenged by our audience with one of these questions, we can use visual storytelling techniques to create the “Inception Effect” and help them find the answer on their own.
Where To Use Visual Storytelling
Supporting graphics in written and video content
The simplest and most obvious place to start practicing your visual storytelling is inside your content. It’s never been easier to create interesting graphs and find powerful images that support the ideas and statements we make in our content. Adding images to your written content can enhance your words and keep people scrolling through your posts. Adding a few visuals to a video can add variety and intrigue to what you share on camera.
A good example of supporting graphics is 8 Ways To Improve Customer Retention In Ecommerce. by MageMail, a company that offers an email marketing solution for eCommerce businesses. This article features many great images that help support the key ideas. They use charts and graphs to drive their points home, but they also mix in cartoons, photos, and screen captures to keep readers engaged through the whole post.
Visual Storytelling In Webinars
There are few places where visual storytelling is more effective and needed than webinars. You can leverage visual storytelling in two of the most crucial parts of your webinar:
- Opening story – People need to know why you care and why they should trust you. Telling your story with compelling visuals is key to building that human and emotional connection with your audience so they stay engaged through the whole webinar.
- Right before your call to action – Your call to action usually comes after a lot of great content and information. But just like high school, most people get pretty drowsy after 30+ minutes of taking in information. A story can break the pattern, recapture their attention and build anticipation for your offer.
Charles Byrd from Zero to 60 With Evernote leverages visual storytelling throughout his webinars as an essential part of his sales strategy. Look how he mixes in slides with images and text, some with full images and some images in rapid succession. The images help convey and reinforce the emotions and experience he wants to create without distracting from what he is saying.
Visual Storytelling On Slideshares
Unlike typical slide decks, slideshares should be designed to stand alone without someone narrating over the slides. To keep this kind of content engaging you need to use visual storytelling to fill in the gaps where your personality and voice would typically fill in on a presentation.
The master of slideshares is Gary Vaynerchuk. His slides get hundreds of thousands of views and are often cited, linked to, and embedded across the web.
There’s one technique that he has mastered that makes his slideshares so much better than everyone else’s. Each slide presents new information, but also invites a new question, so every time you click forward on a slide, you’re left on a little mini-cliffhanger that gets you to click forward one more slide.
Visual Storytelling On Social Media
Creating strong visuals for our content, talks and ads also translates into good bite-sized content perfect for social media. By applying good visual storytelling principles to what you create, you’ll be able to create a visual story with only one image or a short video.
The strongest platforms for visual storytelling on social media are currently Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.
A great example of storytelling on social media is the Wylder Goods Instagram. Wylder Goods is a curated store that believes women want more than pink and pastel colors when adventuring outdoors. They want clothing designed by women for women, brands that take responsibility for their impact and represent and balance beauty and functionality.
Their Instagram is filled with beautiful yet simple stories of real women who share their passion for the outdoors, adventure, and the environment. They are a diverse community of women who share their values and add their own stories to the larger narrative Wylder has created.
Visual Storytelling In Ads
Visual storytelling is essential in ads because you have a very limited number of words you can use. You need to rely on visuals to really make the emotional impact and get the attention of your audience.
I wrote a whole article on using storytelling in ads, if you want to take a deeper dive. Check it out here: Master the power of Storytelling in your Ads
Visual Storytelling In Email Marketing
It’s 2018, yet we still, for the most part, use plain text emails like we did in 1998. If you’re going to invest heavily in your visuals in your content, ads, and social media, why not use some if it in your email marketing as well?
It does not take much to create a visual story in your emails. A few simple images or graphics with a few lines of text can create a compelling story that gets our imaginations going. Take a look at this example from AirBnB featured in Storytelling in Email.
What I love about this email is how minimal it is. It takes less than a minute to read, yet gives you a whole day of sight, taste, and touch to help you picture your next vacation.
Though created by one of the “giants” as far as startups go, there’s no reason a bootstrapper could not create a similar email using free tools.
Think of someone scrolling down your landing page like someone flipping through the pages of a book. Can you connect the visuals you use to create a story as someone progresses down your landing page? With visual storytelling you can create a sense of progress that can inspire the right ideas and emotions to get your readers to take action.
Another phenomenal example of visual storytelling on a landing page is Interseller’s homepage. Above the fold makes a simple value proposition to “make contact with new prospects,” but the visuals of the page and even the name of the company itself go “all in” on the sci-fi idea of “making contact” with a space bear floating weightless through the cosmos.
Further down the page they follow the same theme as Intercom, showing how their product translates a complex problem into a simple and easy solution, all while continuing with their charming space theme.
How To Determine The Right Visuals For Your Audience
Your visuals will only be as successful as their alignment with your audience’s mindset.
A big budget infographic conveying a sense of “luxury” may not perform as well as a minimal whiteboard video to a group of practical “bootstrappers” in the early stages of their business.
Know The Goal Of Your Visuals
Your visuals should support a goal you want to achieve. Once you understand your goal, it’s easier to determine what emotions and messages you want to convey to support the action you want your audience to take.
- Tell your personal story – Show your audience that you’re relatable and human. Personal images and vulnerability are important here.
- An inspirational manifesto – Get people excited about your big vision for the world. Employ high-energy, bright colors and lots of movement.
- A practical “how to” guide – Teach someone something useful. Use minimal and practical visuals that help clarify and reinforce your points.
- Product promotion – Get people excited about your upcoming launch. Convey a mixture of pain related to their current problem and opportunity for a better life once it’s solved.
Where And How Will Your Visuals Be Seen?
Understanding where and how your visuals will be seen can help determine what you want to create. This will help create boundaries that will inform your creativity and ensure that your visuals serve the right purpose.
If you’re doing an ad, a short, 30-second video might be better than a drawn-out one. A visual to support written content could look very different than the image you would use to promote that same content across social media.
The same visuals may have wildly different responses across the different social media platforms. Each of the major platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, Pinterest) all serves different purposes to its users. You want your visuals to align with the platform they’ll appear on.
What Are Your Strengths?
Content is a long-term play, so you’ve got to find some pleasure in the process to keep you going. You want to play to your natural strengths where possible. This will ensure you don’t burn out creating content that you don’t enjoy.
This goes beyond just your skills in the visual arts, however. Try to examine your other skills (data interpretation, a unique story, personality traits, your philosophy and beliefs) and consider the best mediums to let those qualities shine.
Set The Mood
Visual storytelling cuts right through our logic to the emotional centers in our brains. Because of this, you need to be deliberate in which emotions you want to stoke in your audience’s heart.
Think carefully about where they are in “The Buyer’s Journey,” what emotions they’re feeling right now, and what you can do to validate, empower, and inspire your audience.
What Is Your Budget?
Be realistic about your budget and what is sustainable for your business to create.
High quality video with lots of footage, music, graphics, and energy will be expensive, but it could be worth it if the video is for a big product launch. However, that same investment may not pay off for weekly blog content.
It’s easy to get hung up on “the cost” of visuals and avoid it altogether until some day when you “finally have enough” to invest. Remember that with storytelling, budget and production is only a tiny factor in the bigger picture. What’s more important is the alignment of the message. There are options for every kind of visual at every budget that you can take advantage of.
Take a look at how Mindkeepers founder Idahosa Ness created a story by copying emojis from Whatsapp’s web messenger onto slides into a simple yet compelling video about his transformation from “dreamer” to “doer”.
Choose Authenticity Over Perfection
This is an important point to follow up budget. Visual storytelling does not need to be expensive and perfectly produced to be effective. Real stories that allow you to be vulnerable and authentic in front of your audience will always outperform big-budget projects.
Another powerful example is the Wait But Why? Blog. This blog is one of the most popular online right now for its thoughtful and detailed articles about many of life’s quirks and challenges. The author, far from Rembrandt, makes his own simple stick-figure cartoons and diagrams for every article. Though he won’t be winning any art competitions with his work any time soon, his authentic visuals have been seen by millions. Though he could very well afford to hire a brilliant designer to help him, he continues with the simple drawings because of the endearing connection they make with his audience.
We’ve already discussed how visual storytelling can help your message stick in the memory of your audience. But if you keep changing your story and your style, you’ll end up working against yourself.
You want to be consistent so that the images, emotions and ideas you share will become associated with you. Get clear on your tone of voice, the message, and the meaning behind your visuals through your content.
My Process For Better Storytelling – The Crossroads Formula
So what can someone do to start creating better visual storytelling? How do you choose what story to tell? How do we ensure that our story will resonate with our audience?
I use a system I call the Crossroads Formula to answer these questions. The Crossroads Formula breaks down “The Hero’s Journey,” a classic storytelling framework, and aligns it with “The Buyer’s Journey,” a framework to visualise how people make buying decisions.
Consider the goal you want to achieve with your visuals or with the content you’re creating as a whole:
- Are you trying to educate your audience about a problem that exists?
- Do you want to create a human connection?
- Do you want them to take action?
These are just a few goals, but each one requires a specific element of story to answer the questions your audience is subconsciously asking. Once you know the story you want to tell, it’s much easier to create a visual or find one that will support it.
10 Visual Storytelling Ideas and Techniques
Show, Don’t Tell – Use Visuals For Context
Let’s face it, talking about yourself is boring. Giving a spoken “highlight reel” of your big achievements and credibility causes people to roll their eyes and tune out because it all sounds like “hype.”
You can save yourself a lot of text and explanation by giving visual context to the stories you tell. The features of the visuals you choose, like color, setting, characters, their expressions, and their body language, can tell a story all on their own.
Instead of simply stating the benefits of working with you, using your product, or learning your wisdom, you can create visuals that communicate that message without directly saying it.
One of the most common ways to do this is with before/after images. This is a very popular tactic among health and fitness professionals, but there are many applications for other businesses.
A great example of this is the infographic Lose Sleep, Lose Your Mind And Health. What I like about this infographic is that, although it is designed very well, the design is also very simple. This is a design that could easily be reproduced with a free account to Canva and the most basic of design skills.
Show Characters That Look Like Your Audience
The foundation to any successful story is how relatable it is to your audience. If you’re trying to sell a fitness program to people who have never set foot inside a gym before, you don’t want to show them pictures of washboard abs glistening in the sun. Your visuals won’t even register in their minds. Using visuals that look like your audience and speak to their needs opens them to hearing more of what you have to say.
Take a look at how Troy Dean from WP Elevation presents a “behind the scenes” look at his community. Instead of talking about the community by himself he has actually customers sharing their stories and experience. By allowing his customers to speak for themselves he builds trust with the viewer.
Make Your Customer The “Hero”
When we experience stories that follow “The Hero’s Journey,” we put ourselves in the shoes of that hero and share the experience and emotions our hero does. This means the experience we create in our stories should always have a hero that represents our audience.
Even when telling stories about yourself or your own business, you must keep the focus on the customer as the hero. Though the character in your story is yourself, the story is about your audience and what they’re feeling and experiencing right now. If they don’t see themselves in your hero, the story won’t connect.
A multi-level example of making your customer “The Hero” is this video from Ontraport. This is a story about one of their customers, James Schramko of Superfast Business. It would be hard to tell that this video was made by Ontraport if it was not in the title. The focus is entirely on James and his story of leaving his work, starting a business and how it’s transformed his life. The video allows us to fully experience James’ story and the emotions of his transformation without trying to dray attention to them and their software. But in the long run, the viewer will start to associate the feeling of James’ story of success with Ontraport.
The next level is how James tells his story. James opens with his story about being employed and his desire to become independent, something that most of his audience can identify with. When he starts talking about his business he expresses a deep admiration for his own customers. He mentions a Dropbox folder filled with positive emails from his clients that he uses when he needs encouragement or a reminder that he’s doing good in the world.
Tell A Full Story
We tend to jump right toward the resolution in our storytelling. We’re excited to get to our solution, our product, and the happy ending. But we must tell the full story to give the ending the “satisfaction” it deserves. This means you must tell a full story. We need to know a character’s roots and suffer with them before we close our tale.
When setting up a visual story, make sure you account for the whole story as well. Follow The Crossroads Formula to create visuals that can both answer all their key buying questions and immerse them in the story.
Keep in mind that the boundaries of a “full story” will change depending on how you are telling your story. In social media, a full story might be restricted to a single image, but an hour-long webinar can give you the freedom to string together many images, videos, and other visuals to create a story.
A great example of telling a full story and using visuals is the welcome video Automate Academy by Kathryn Jones. This welcome video creates a sense of momentum and energy using a lot of fast cuts, showing people she admires, and accenting important statements with text. Though the video is ultimately about “Automation,” it’s also a manifesto for the company, why they do what they do, and the bigger purpose they serve.
Show Contrast And Conflict
Conflict and contrast are the backbone of stories. The tension that is created with a conflict is what keeps us engaged to find out what happens in the end. As soon as the conflict is resolved, the credits roll and we all go home.
Contrast and conflict is very powerful in featured images and visuals that your audience will see early (top of a landing page, early in a webinar) because the conflict will get us hooked and keep us interested enough to stick around.
If you need 39 more photos like this to help you get some “conflict” visuals, check out: 40 Photos Taken a Split Second Before Disaster Hits.
Focus On What’s Important
Don’t let your visuals get diluted with details. Make sure the focus of each visual stands out so the key message comes across loud and clear.
You don’t need a powerful camera or amazing design skills to create a focus that draws the eye to the right place in your story.
Take a look at this image below. It took a moment (for me at least) to know what was happening in the photo. Why was the old lady highlighted in the crowd? It drew me in, and then gave me the answer…
Whatever is happening off camera must be impressive, but the only person who is actually being present is the old woman. Everyone else is lost in their phones. This realization brings a fresh set of emotions and meaning to the image. But without the highlight/focus on the old woman, the image might have been forgotten and scrolled past without a second thought.
Understand How Colors And Emotions Interact
Be mindful of what colors you choose to use when telling a story with visuals. Colors have a visceral connection with our minds and our emotions. Study the different emotional associations of colors and use them to help focus your message. All colors are aligned with both positive and negative emotions.
A great infographic that breaks down the most common colors and their related emotions is The Psychology Of Color.
Build Movement Into Your Visuals
Understanding movement in your visuals and how it influences your audience is crucial to making successful visuals. One of the simplest forms of movement is the “gaze.” Where do your visuals lead the eyes of your audience?
The direction someone is looking in a picture causes your eyes to follow thiers. It’s simple human nature to try and find out what has captured someone else’s attention. Look at how Lewis Howes leverages this in his Instagram profile picture. His gaze leads people right to the “follow” button.
Your Visuals Must Teach
Use visual storytelling to drive home key points and ideas. Good visuals can present information to us in a new or unique way that helps us understand and learn.
If you can combine the emotional response created in visual storytelling with useful information, it will stay with your audience for longer and give them more reasons to both share and return to your content later.
Take a look at this simple Posting Dead Zones infographic that provides some insights on how social media marketers can better schedule their posts for maximum impact.
Use Animated GIFs And Memes
Animated GIFs and memes are becoming very popular tools for visual storytelling.
One reason GIFs and memes are so effective is that they leverage pop culture and already familiar stories to enhance your own ideas. According to the mere-exposure effect, people prefer ideas or images that they are already familiar with over those that are unfamiliar. Using pop culture characters in your memes and GIFs can leverage this social phenomenon.
Recently, I built a course on storytelling and content marketing. Talking over slides can be boring without something to keep the audience listening. I added some GIFs to each presentation to add more context, leverage emotions from other great stories, and provide some entertainment value.
It’s also possible to create your own animated GIFs. I use them to create short “micro-tutorials” to help make instructions clearer. Here’s an example I used on a previous post explaining how to activate Trello’s calendar feature.
Though GIFs can be very useful, they also can have very large file sizes. This can be dangerous for your load times and SEO, so make sure to keep those file sizes small and don’t overdo it with GIFs.
My Favorite Tools For Visual Storytelling
Canva – This is the foundation for anything visual. This tool has everything you need, including free stock photos, nice fonts, templates, graphics, icons… and much more. This tool is a godsend for content creators, and it’s incredibly easy to use.
The only complaint I have is that it tends to create images with very big file sizes, so make sure you optimize your images for fast loading times.
I use Canva for almost all featured images I create for this blog and my clients’ content.
Over – This is a free (with paid features) mobile app that has some powerful layering tools to blend your text and images. This is an app that you can pick up right away and start making some interesting visuals, but you can keep uncovering and learning to use new features and tools to create some impressive work.
Photofox – This mobile app (currently for IOS only…) makes the powerful layering and effects tools that were once only available on Photoshop easy to use even for novice designers. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can create stunning contrast and interesting stories by combining two (or more) different images.
Splice – This mobile app brings powerful video editing software to mobile devices. It makes it easy to string together videos, trim clips, and add sound effects and music.
Giphy Capture – This free app allows you to make your own animated GIFs quickly and easily. If you still need convincing, take a look at this ad they put together that combines the quirky humor of animated GIFs and a colorful talk show.
Visme – This is a free platform to create infographics. It’s filled with loads of template layouts, charts, and graphics that make it easy to get started telling a visual story with your infographics.
Inkspace – For anyone who loves drawing, this tool will be a life-changer. This is free software that can turn your sketches into editable vector files on your computer. You will need more robust software like Photoshop or Illustrator to work with the files after you have them on your computer.
As you undoubtedly know by now, visual storytelling is an incredibly powerful tool for big businesses and bootstrappers alike. Like many worthwhile skills in life and business, visual storytelling is something that is easy to pick up, but difficult to master.
Get started by focusing on a few key areas in your marketing where you could test out visual content. Don’t try to apply all these ideas at the same time. Pick a specific concept, tool, or strategy to master first.
Over time, your visual storytelling will help you rise above the noise, connect with your audience, and get the full value out of your own unique story.
I also want to give a special shout out to June Bui, the brilliant mind behind many of the amazing infographics on this site, for her help in researching and collaborating on this article.