Visual Storytelling–Tips, Rules, and Don’ts



March 23, 2021 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

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They say a picture is worth a thousand words. And a thousand words is definitely plenty to tell a story, right? That’s where visual storytelling comes into play. But what is it? How is it useful? And where can it best be used to your advantage?

Visual Storytelling Defined

Visuals are something you can see and storytelling is a form of communication used in many different ways. People have told stories orally for centuries. Stories can be told through songs, movies, TV shows, and even art. Visual storytelling is when ideas and even emotions are conveyed without words, but rather through aesthetics. You might go to a ballet, for example, where there is no speaking, but there is still a story. It is told visually. A painting is another good example. You get an idea of what is going on in the picture, and possibly even feel some emotions to go along with it, without ever hearing a word.

Today’s Chosen Form Of Communication

As you may have noticed, attention spans are very short today. People scroll right past things that don’t interest them and even things that catch their eye only get a few seconds of their time. There are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created on a daily basis and much of it is competing for attention. How can any marketer gain an audience with anyone when there is that much data out there?

Yes, there is content overload and yes, consumers have a very fragmented attention span. And that is exactly why today’s marketers are highly interested in visual storytelling. They need to make an impact in a span of seconds and communicate a story that will draw interest from the right people. With so much scrolling, it can be hard to catch attention from anyone at any time — at least without the right message.

Capturing Visual Learners

Studies show that the brain can compute visuals much faster than text. Most people want their ads to make them feel good and to feel more like a story than an ad. When you were in school, did anyone ever tell you that you were a visual learner? Visual learners are students who learn best when information is presented to them in a graphic style. They might respond well to graphs, pictures, textbooks, and other things that they are able to see and take in with their own eyes and at their own pace.

The way people take in information varies, and there are many different kinds of learning. But visual learning is always a part of the process, and anyone can be impacted by a powerful story told in a visual manner. It is also a useful way to get someone’s attention in the marketing world.

Cutting Through The Clutter

Ads can do many things in many ways. They could tell a story, word by word, in a long column. They could also shoot a logo at you with some commanding calls to action. But marketers today are trying to cut through the clutter of the old ad styles and really resonate with their audience. That means telling a story — a powerful one — that will hit home with just the right consumers. And fast. These visual stories need to address the consumer’s needs first, not the marketer’s. They are not selling a product, but rather an experience. And that experience is key.

For example, if you are going to eat a certain type of breakfast cereal, great. But what is the experience surrounding that move? What will life be like for the rest of the day? What will you feel like? What benefits will you get? Those are the types of things marketers want to incorporate into the visual narrative. It’s not about the cereal’s taste, though it should be delicious, but rather the experience you will have when you eat and because you ate the cereal.

The Visual Storytelling Frame

If you ever took a story writing class, or have had to take a turn at writing a short story, you know that a story has to have a setting, a conflict, and a resolution. When you are visualizing a story, it’s best to plan it out, write it out, and then edit until it is just how you want it to be. When you are telling a story, especially through visual storytelling, you strategize, figure out how you are going to engage the audience, and optimize your message.

Visual Storytelling Tips

As you venture into the marketing world, it’s good to know what a visual storyteller is and how to become one yourself. Use this storytelling frame to get you started down the right path. But you will also need some tips to help you along the way. Here are a few to get you started:

1. See From Another Perspective

It’s important to look at the world from your own point of view, but how do others see it? How does your target consumer see it? You need to be able to take the world in from their vantage point and see what they see. That will give you a good frame of reference for creating something that will impact them. If you are not the target consumer, it doesn’t matter what you think. You need to get into their perspective to create something that will impact the right person at the right time and place.

2. Put Emotions Into Motion

It is one thing to feel an emotion. It is another to feel that emotion moving. People might feel motion through something happening in a picture as a child rides a bike, someone makes a gesture, or a person has a certain facial expression. There are many activities that can put motion into the image, but also bring emotions to the mind. It might be nostalgia, happiness, sympathy, or any one of a number of other emotions.

3. Create a New Reality

People know what their everyday life is like. What they are looking to do is create something better than what they already have, even in a small way. Through visual storytelling, it’s important that marketers show consumers something surprising and a way that they, too, can have a new reality. They might have to open their imagination, dream big, or buy a certain product. Creating a reality that looks too good to be true, but is attainable, will draw attention to the story.

4. Portray a Moment in Time

Visual storytelling can convey a moment in time and illustrate an overall message. The story can’t be long and involved because it is just one image. But it can be deep and moving. It is one moment, captured in that visual, and that one moment has to say it all. Choose one moment that you wish to illustrate for consumers in order to grab attention and allow them to peek over the hedge and imagine what might come next.

5. Consider a Character

Many visual stories are going to have a character element, whether they are a protagonist or antagonist. And you can draw out emotions around them. So many companies today have mascots or characters that they use in their marketing. They become recognizable and allow consumers to know who the company is without ever saying a word. The right character can become the heart of the message.

6. Find a Balance

It’s important to get the balance of the visual story just right so there isn’t too much of anything. The eye needs to be drawn around the important part of the image to get the story, not get stuck on something in the background that wasn’t meant to be an integral part of the piece. There should be a focal point and the rest of the image can be used to balance it out and draw the eye to that point.

How To Create A Visual Storytelling Illustration

Visual storytelling is a huge trend in web and graphic design.  It’s simply the way most brands go in order to gather more customers and get attention on their products and services. All of the trendy social media sites are focused on visuals, so it only makes sense that if you want to grab attention, that’s the way you will have to go. While there are plenty of authors and marketers that still have a way with long-form writing, short, snappy, and visual is the way to go today.

So, how can you create that powerful visual story? There are rules to do the job right. Here are some to put alongside the tips and get everything just right.

Rule 1: Show, Don’t Tell

There’s a difference between someone telling you how to make a certain recipe and that same person actually showing you how it’s done. You want to see it, right? You want to be shown how to do something new so you feel more confident about it. Just telling you won’t necessarily get you very far. The same is true about visual stories. You want to be shown the story. You don’t have to read it or imagine it yourself, the story comes out for you to see right before your eyes. No one has to explicitly say “this product is great,” because the story visual will show the benefits of the product and the rest will be inferred. Those looking at the visual story know that their life will be better because of that product. It will work wonders for them. And no one told them a thing.

Rule 2: Context Is Key

Have you ever gotten a text message that didn’t make sense? The person on the other end knew what they were trying to say, but you have no idea. You have no context. When you are creating a visual story with very few, if any, words, you need to give your audience the proper context. If you place two individuals in work attire, heading into a coffee shop, you don’t need to have them converse and talk about the workday ahead or what kind of coffee they are going to get. You already get that idea from the picture itself. It can also be a good idea to consider turning ideas people have about certain areas of interest around upside down. Most people might think that insurance is boring, so make it look exciting by using a superhero who saves the day after a disaster. It’s all about the context.

Rule 3: Become Approachable

Not everyone is comfortable with every type of business. Take funeral homes, for example. No one wants to have to work with a funeral director because it means something horrible has happened and there has been a death in the family. But when funeral homes use their funeral director in their visual illustrations, they become that friendly face, an approachable person, a trusted member of the community. Make your business approachable by showing a behind-the-scenes look into what you do.

Rule 4: Never Lose Sight Of You

Your business is unique and you, personally, are special as well. You never want to lose sight of who you are or what you are trying to do. True stories are powerful. You can dig into your history and the history of your business to find stories that might be touching to bring about in a visual story. As long as these stories keep your business aligned with what is true for you, they’re great options to try.

Rule 5: Show Conflict

Conflict is often a driving force in any story. If there were no sharks in the water with the swimmers in the ocean, where’s the excitement in that? There needs to be a ticking clock counting down to an inevitable moment. Conflict sparks interest and danger is always something people are going to wonder about. What will happen? How will the resolution arise?

Rule 6: Teach Something

While there are some people who think they know everything about everything, no one really does. And if you can come up with a visual storytelling illustration that actually carries a message, gives a lesson, or teaches something new, that can be pure gold. Entertainment is great, but if there’s a message from your brand, that can be very effective. It’s important that you decide what you want to teach and be consistent, but creative about it.

Rule 7: Never Be Obvious

It’s so easy to use certain fallbacks in visual stories, but you never want to be obvious with your storytelling. It would be like watching a mystery and knowing who the killer was from the very beginning without any twists or turns. It’s boring. It’s not going to grab or keep the attention. People are exposed to hundreds of stories on a daily basis and the ones that stick in their minds are the ones that don’t take the obvious path. Throw away your first idea and instead, focus on the 3rd, 4th, or even 7th idea to avoid that obvious answer.

What To Avoid In Visual Storytelling

While there are many things you should do when telling a visual story, there are just as many, if not more, things you should not do. You want people to stop scrolling and pay attention. You want to draw interest. You will not do that if you do these no-nos. Avoid these items when working on a visual story:

Don’t Use Boring/Stock Images

Stock images tell stories, yes, but they often tell a generic story or one that others have used before. What you are going to want is something special and unique, not something boring that anyone could find with one quick search. Using something simple and generic is not going to capture attention.

Don’t Use Blurry Visuals

Yes, most people are really good at taking pictures with their cellphones today and you might even be proud of some of the images you have captured yourself. But it’s imperative that any photo you use be professional quality to show that you are making an effort for your business. Poor images will keep people scrolling and ignoring. If they do stop, they aren’t going to get the right message about your business.

Don’t Use Images That Cause Confusion

You want the message you are trying to get across to be very clear. Not every picture can do that. Some might confuse people and make them think one thing, when you’re actually trying to convey the exact opposite. You need something that has a clear, concise story and not something that will be misleading in any way.

The Power Of Images

Images are at their height of power. Visual storytelling is at an all-time high. Your conversion rate can increase by 86% by using video. Text stories with images get 94% more views than straight text stories. 70% of content marketers use visuals to increase their traffic and impact. Users are more inclined to engage with a brand that posts pictures and takes part in visual storytelling. Now, what are you going to do about it?

Creating a visual story isn’t as easy as it looks when other people do it. You might see an ad and think, I could have done that! But could you have, really? It took time, thought, effort, and testing to get that ad just as it was. It’s a complicated process that can be very hit or miss.

Do you think you have a great idea? Wonderful, put it together and let colleagues take a look! Are they coming back with the right message? Are they hearing the story you want to tell through the picture alone? If not, it’s back to the drawing board.

Visual storytelling can be a lot of trial and error, but when the visual comes together with the story seamlessly, it can be a perfect fit and a graphic sensation. You want people to not only stop scrolling when they see your story illustration, but to click on it, share it, and become engaged.

Finding Your Path To Visual Storytelling

There are plenty of people who have a talent for visual storytelling. If you don’t have any within your company, or if you are a one-person show in charge of marketing and everything else, it might be in your best interest to hire outside help to start the stories off in the right direction. Learn enough from the professionals and you might be able to take things from there.

The direction you take your brand, your products, your services, and your company through visual storytelling could take the company to new heights, or confuse consumers enough that they turn away. You want the benefits, not the downfalls. Be sure about your visuals before you put them out into the world or they can come back in a negative way. Test them out before they hit the market and figure out what visual storytelling tips can help you thrive.

Visual storytelling is something that is here to stay. It’s in your best interest to figure out how to go about creating your own messages in a concrete, exciting way so you are able to draw attention and engage consumers before you lose their attention. It’s a matter of seconds, mere instances, and you can lengthen that time on your product or services with visual storytelling success.


Author Image - jross

CopyPress writer

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