The Power of Effective Visual Storytelling

September 29, 2016

From caveman pictographs to modern-day commercials, effective visual storytelling has always been a powerful form of communication. It’s a key factor in creating an emotional experience for your audience—one that will linger in their memory long after the story is told.

ROI capability: visual storytellingIt’s no secret that modern marketers are very aware of this fact. I can’t count the number of times that a commercial has made me a little misty-eyed these days. It could just be that I recently became a mother and have gone a bit soft…but I think it has much more to do with just how effective storytelling has become.

Take this example from Artifact Uprising. It introduces us to Joe, a 95-year-old grandfather, who is leaving behind a rich world of family pictures and stories to his grandchildren. There are no statistics, no sales messages—not even a direct mention of the product. Just a touching story involving a specific relatable character, featuring powerful visuals and the added dimension of music.

When you communicate in this way—direct, authentic and unadorned—you immediately elevate the experience of the message. All of the details of the product—the way you use it, how it works, the unnecessary blur of information that we overload our communications with—is distilled into a singular, intimate connection. A connection that you share, invite into your life and etch into your memory. A connection that sticks with you much longer than any statistic or product feature…and when the time is right, a connection that makes you more likely to choose that product over another.

There are two important dimensions of effective visual storytelling:

Convey your message in a good story:

Stories help us remember things. Because we weren’t built to memorize information at random, stories create the context that allows our brains to organize information in a linear way and file it away in our memory. Anyone can recite statistics, outline bullet points of do’s and don’ts—but if you wrap that information around a great story, you create a hook that people can bond with. And people remember the things they bond with.

Here’s an example. Consider the humble sandwich. I could tell you that it was invented in 1748 as a convenient way for British aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, to eat beef and bread. Or, I could tell you that it was invented by British aristocrat John Montagu—the 4th Earl of Sandwich and a devoted gambler—in search of a convenient way to eat while keeping one hand free so that he could indulge in one of his epic, 24-hour card games. Which one do you think you’ll remember?

Good storytelling also makes people feel invested in both what you’re telling them and the outcome. So as you think through the right story to tell, the audience should be your main consideration. The story you share with a group of business engineers may be quite different than the one you would tell an audience of young artists or writers.

Use visuals to portray your story:

Based on the Index of Learning Styles study conducted in the 1980s that sorted learners into different categories, roughly 65% of the population are visual learners. Subsequent studies have estimated the number of visual learners to be as high as 80%. But of course, in keeping with the best practice of this article, the graphic below shows the real reason you want to use visuals.

The Power of Effective Visual Storytelling

Make your story stick:

Once you’ve landed on the perfect story, there are some tricks to making it stick. First—a simple story is more successful than a complicated one. Our brains relate more easily to simple language and low complexity, so if you’re working with the written word, don’t overstuff it with multiple adjectives. Keep it straightforward and heartfelt. Second—avoid overused language in general, and avoid overused marketing-speak like the plague. Scientists have found that familiar phrases at some point lose their impact—terms like “a rough day” are so overused that at some point our brain begins treating them as words and nothing more.

So how can you capitalize on this powerful communication mechanism? Start by collecting stories. You can build a database of stories, and encourage customers and employees to submit anecdotes you can use in your communication. You’d be amazed at the variety of things that people will find meaningful! Even a simple, thoughtful human gesture between two employees can prove to be powerful when aligned with a strong storytelling framework and a dynamic visual depiction.

One great way to practice storytelling is to start with yourself—what is your story? Even if you think yours isn’t that exciting, you will find that by focusing on the essence of who you are and the most pared down arc of how you got to be where you are today, a rich, engaging narrative will emerge. Add imagery that evokes the spirit of your journey, and suddenly you have a fully realized story that makes a lasting impact. In a phrase: effective visual storytelling.

A story well told is a delight to behold. And by communicating your story simply, with authenticity and meaningful visuals, you have the potential to create a narrative that will connect and pay off dividends long afterwards.


Melanie Barna

Senior Vice President

Melanie oversees our diverse team of writers, designers, illustrators and developers. Drawing on her vast knowledge of computer science, brand marketing and creative design, she makes sure every project delights customers in both visual and narrative ways. A former Emmy judge and marathon runner, she serves on ROI’s leadership team.