When you want someone to get the message fast, images work best. That’s because we process images a mind-boggling 60,000 times faster than text, and pictures move us more than words alone. This is why visual storytelling is such a game-changer when it comes to connecting with your audience.
It’s a technique that has existed since ancient times (cave paintings, for example) and evolved alongside technology. Today, it plays a key role in our daily communication, found in everything from movies and TV to ads to political campaigns and social media marketing. But how exactly do you harness this audience-inspiring superpower? Read on!
What is visual storytelling?
Visual storytelling is the process of sharing a message visually. It includes images, symbols, colors, movement, and other elements to communicate ideas, elicit emotions, and immerse the audience in a story.
It taps into our innate love for stories and our ability to quickly interpret visual information, making it a powerful tool for engagement and understanding.
Visual storytelling techniques
- Photography: Capturing moments and narratives in a single frame
- Cinema and television: Combining moving images and sound to create immersive stories
- Comics and graphic novels: Merging art and text to tell sequential stories
- Infographics: Presenting data and information visually for easy understanding
- Animation: Bringing illustrations to life through motion
- Video games: Creating interactive stories where players influence the outcome
- Virtual and augmented reality: Offering immersive experiences that blend the real with the digital
- Social media: Utilizing platforms like Instagram and TikTok for short-form visual narratives
- Art installations: Conveying concepts through immersive physical environments
- Theatre and performances: Telling stories through live visual expressions and staging
- Graphs: Presenting data visually to make it easier to comprehend and remember. Bar charts, spider diagrams, pie charts — all more effective than pages of numbers.
- Wireframes and mock-ups: Stripped-back versions of websites give clients and teams a clearer idea of how a site or app will look, feel, and work before moving on to the next stage. They play a key role in UX design.
According to an exercise run by Made to Stick at Stanford University, only 5% of people remember the numbers/statistics, while 63% remember the story; stories persuade twice as much compared to hard data.
A brief history of visual storytelling
Visual storytelling is as old as humanity itself, with its roots in ancient cave paintings. Our ancestors depicted hunting scenes, elements of their daily lives, and, in one famous example (which could arguably be called the first selfie), their hands.
These primitive narratives evolved into sophisticated forms like Egyptian hieroglyphs and medieval tapestries, each era using visuals to record and share complex stories. The Renaissance brought a new depth with detailed, perspective-driven artwork, while the invention of the printing press in the 15th century democratized access to illustrated stories.
“Visual storytelling of one kind or another has been around since cavemen were drawing on the walls,” said screenwriter Frank Darabont.
Electricity and the dawn of a new era
The 19th and 20th centuries marked a revolution in visual storytelling with the advent of photography and film. Television further expanded its reach, bringing serialized visual stories into homes globally. But it was the digital age that truly exploded the form into countless new mediums. The internet and smartphones birthed social media platforms, allowing everyone to share and consume visual narratives instantly, from memes to viral videos.
Platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube are home to millions of creators using images, videos, and live streams to tell their stories. Businesses, too, have embraced these platforms, using visual storytelling to connect with audiences on a more personal and emotional level.
The history of visual storytelling is not just a chronicle of technological advancements but a testament to the human need to tell and consume stories visually.
Why is visual storytelling important?
Visual storytelling is powerful because it plays to our innate desire to connect with each other. We’re also wired to process visuals — so when you add those two things up, you have your answer: visual storytelling is powerful and effective.
Visual storytelling is so much more than a way to convey a message, though. It’s a way to grab attention and ultimately reach out to someone.
That’s the real power of visual storytelling. It speaks directly to the heart, sometimes bypassing the need for language altogether, and in doing so, it brings us all a little closer.
How visual storytelling helps marketers
For marketers, visual storytelling is like a secret weapon. When you get it right, you have someone’s attention. But more than that — you have their emotional investment.
In a world where everyone’s scrolling after their next dopamine hit, a striking image or an engaging video is what makes people stop and take notice, which is a powerful thing.
It’s not just about selling a product, though. It’s about creating something that resonates with the audience on an emotional level. A good visual story can make consumers feel something real — joy, nostalgia, excitement — and that connection is gold. It’s what turns casual viewers into loyal fans.
- Captures attention quickly in a crowded digital space
- Evokes emotions, creating a deeper connection with the audience
- Boosts brand identity through consistent and easily recognizable visual narratives
- Simplifies complex information, making it more understandable
- Increases engagement and encourages social sharing
- Boosts recall and memory of the brand and its message
- Sets a brand apart from competitors
- Drives action and conversation
- Provides versatile content across various platforms
- Builds community by sharing relatable stories
The key elements of visual storytelling
Now you know why visual storytelling is important, let’s take a look at how to get it right.
Effective visual storytelling is built on several key elements: emotional resonance, compelling imagery, a narrative that connects with the audience, appropriate pacing to keep viewers engaged, and a clear message or call to action. These elements work together to create stories that bring both looks and heart to the table.
- Compelling imagery: Every image should serve a purpose, whether it’s setting the scene, illustrating a point, or evoking an emotion. Make sure images are high quality (no pixelation, please!), on-brand, and contextually relevant (meaning it makes sense in situ and also for your objective).
- Narrative connection: Visuals work best when they’re connected via a strong narrative. It’s the golden thread that links your images together, creating a cohesive story that takes users on a journey. This means having a clear beginning, middle, and end, with a well-thought-out plot to guide viewers.
- Appropriate pacing: Just like a well-paced movie keeps you on the edge of your seat, the pacing in visual storytelling is important for maintaining engagement. It’s about knowing when to slow down to let the audience soak in the information and when to speed up to keep the story moving.
- Emotional resonance: The best and most memorable stories are the ones that make us feel something. This doesn’t mean you need to create the next Shawshank Redemption. Simple emotions like joy, validation, sadness, surprise, or even anger are all good things to aim for.
- Clear message: This is not the time to channel that ambiguous art film. Every story needs a clear point. Whether it’s a call to action or a key takeaway, the message should be unmistakable and leave the audience with a clear understanding of what they need to do next.
5 great visual storytelling examples
Here are some great examples to inspire you.
- The Great Tree Migration — Emergence Magazine
Emergence Magazine’s visuals bring to life the importance of healthy forests while teaching viewers how climate change impacts this. Writing, photos, videos, and graphics bring this scroll-triggered timeline to life.
2. NBC News reports segregation in Detroit
3. NYT cooking tutorials
Recipes are a good example of something that’s evolved with visual storytelling methods. From plain text in 19th Century cookbooks, to illustrated versions of the 1950s, to present-day iterations filled with mouthwatering imagery — we’ve evolved from giving readers the ‘how’ to make something to the ‘why’ (it looks delicious). Videos take that one step further by making the ‘how’ part of the why (it’s delicious AND easy).
4. Nulab’s infographic on product launches
Infographics are a great way to turn data into something easily digestible. We did it for an article on product launch success, amongst others. But we also invented Cacoo, which is a diagramming tool that turns data into visuals!
5. London Underground’s tube tiles
The tile murals in each London Underground station serve a historical purpose beyond mere decoration (although that in itself is a legitimate reason).
Initially, when some of the oldest and most popular stations were decorated, these distinctive designs were intended to help passengers recognize their location. This was especially helpful in the early days when many passengers were illiterate and couldn’t read the station names.
As literacy levels improved, the need for distinctive patterns diminished, but they now stand as historically significant artifacts that contribute to the history and story of the Underground and its past.
Visual storytelling tips for success
1. Know your audience
Not considering the cultural, demographic, or psychological context of your audience can lead to misunderstandings or, worse, damage your reputation. Spend some time getting to know your audience, then tailor your story so it’s the right message, at the right time, in the right place.
First and foremost: what do they care about? This isn’t just about demographics (although they do help). It’s about understanding their dreams, fears, and daily lives. When your story feels like it’s speaking directly to them, they’re more likely to engage.
Speaking of visuals — a user persona template is a great way to turn all your audience data into something a bit more visual and, well, human. It’s easier to craft a message for a person than a faceless mass of data.
2. Create a focused narrative
Every story needs a start, a middle, and an end. A disjointed or unclear narrative can lose your audience’s attention, so keep this narrative arc in mind.
Your story should be like a well-planned journey with a clear destination. But here’s the thing — you might know your destination, but your audience doesn’t. It’s up to you to guide them through a path where every twist and turn makes sense and keeps them intrigued every step of the way. This includes the journey’s end: not including a clear call to action (CTA) doesn’t just lower your chances of engagement — it’s also confusing for your users. Always conclude with a clear, compelling action to move things forward.
If you’re in the business of website or app design, then a wireframe will help. It’s like a map, helping you plan the journey you’re planning for your customer. Just one word of warning: wireframes are visual, but you should never use visuals in your wireframe. Their beauty lies in their simplicity, so keep them basic. They’re the building blocks of your creation, not the decoration on top.
3. Be consistent in style and quality
Consistency builds trust because we know what to expect. Just as people are recognized by (and loved for) their consistent traits, your visual storytelling should have a style and quality that makes it uniquely yours. This is the best way to build a brand identity that’s reliable and instantly recognizable.
To get it right every time, you’re going to need a great style guide. This is a set of standards for the formatting and design of brand assets. It’s useful because it gives everyone clear rules to follow as easy justification for rejecting work if it doesn’t meet them. When it comes to creating a style guide, treat it as you would any piece of content for your own audience. Use visuals, stay focused, and be consistent.
4. Weave emotional elements into your story
Failing to connect emotionally can make your story forgettable. Use visuals and narratives that evoke the desired emotional response.
Generic stock imagery and corporate speak will leave your customers cold. Image source: stock.adobe.com
Emotions are the universal language that everyone speaks, transcending words and, to a large extent, culture. By weaving emotional elements into your story, you’re tapping into a powerful way to connect with your audience. Whether it’s joy, sadness, excitement, or nostalgia, emotions can turn a simple story into something audiences care about, and if you’re lucky, seek out and share.
5. Every visual should serve a purpose
Just like every word in a poem counts, every visual in your story should be there for a reason. It could be to set the mood, emphasize a point, or simply keep the story flowing. All these reasons are valid, but if a visual doesn’t serve a clear purpose, it might just be cluttering your narrative. If that’s the case, ditch it.
6. Engage and iterate based on feedback
Engagement is a two-way street. Listen to how your audience responds to your stories. Their reactions, comments, and shares can tell you what’s working and what’s not. Use this feedback to refine and evolve your storytelling, making each story better than the last.
7. Use high-quality visuals
Think of your visuals as the face of your story. Just like you wouldn’t attend an important meeting in PJs, you wouldn’t want your story represented by blurry or irrelevant images. High-quality visuals show you value your message and your audience, and they help make your story pop and stick in the mind. To really shine, get a photographer, graphic designer, and/or videographer to lend a hand.
For visuals in a work context, give diagramming tools a go. With Cacoo, you can create Gantt charts, presentation slides, virtual Kanban boards, and more. Simply adjust your chosen template with a few clicks, then share it with your team.
8. Keep it simple
Let’s talk about information overload. We’ve all experienced cluttered web pages that send us straight to the X button. Bombarding the audience with too many visuals or complex narratives will similarly leave people frustrated or, worse, scare them off entirely. Stick to one clear message or story per piece. And when it comes to visuals, take a leaf out of Apple’s book rather than Microsoft’s.
9. Be fresh, be original!
Repetition will bore your audience. Keep your stories fresh and varied, and avoid reusing the same content too much (although reposting things a few times can help catch those who missed your content the first time around).
Speaking of reusing content — replicating viral content is unoriginal, so create your own stories or risk looking like a copycat. Or, if you are hopping on the back of a trend like using a viral TikTok audio, act fast or look stale, and remember to give credit where credit’s due. No one likes a big company piggybacking off the hard work of an individual creator.
10. Balance style with substance
Don’t let aesthetics overshadow your message. Balance visual appeal with meaningful content that empowers users to act. The same goes for website functionality: visuals are great, but overuse them and you’ll risk slowing your site down. As with all things, it’s a question of balance.
Give your visual storytelling the professional edge
DIY content has its moments, but when it comes to wireframes, mockups, and graphs, clarity is key. That’s where Cacoo comes in. Our user-friendly diagramming tool makes it easy to create crisp, professional visuals in just a few clicks. Then, once you’re done, share your visuals with your audience, who can give 100% of their attention to your message, undistracted by bad imagery. Give it a try today!