Humans have evolved to be incredibly visual creatures. We’re wired to process visual information more effectively than any other form of communication. From the cave paintings of our ancient ancestors to the videos and infographics we see today, we’ve always used visual aids to help us make sense of the world around us. That’s why visual storytelling is so effective when it comes to expressing and communicating ideas.
Knowing how to develop your own visual stories will give you an edge in business, design, and communication. By following the visual story principles discussed below, you’ll be able to communicate with greater clarity and better connect with your audiences.
The Power of Visuals in Storytelling
It’s no surprise that visual aids like charts, graphs, and infographics are so ubiquitous. According to a study by 3M Corporation, the human brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text. That’s why visual aids are so effective at communicating complex ideas and data in a way that is easy to understand and remember.
Before we go any further, let’s be clear about what we mean when we say visual storytelling:
- A visual story is a graphical representation that helps to organize and communicate information in a clear, concise, structured, and engaging way. It helps to create a logical flow of information that guides the viewer’s attention and understanding.
- A visual story typically consists of a set of visual elements. The elements could be a combo of symbols, icons, shapes, and colors, that are arranged in a logical and meaningful way to convey complex ideas, processes, or relationships.
Whether you are presenting data, explaining a concept, or outlining a process, a visual story can help you communicate your message more effectivley.
Let’s look at a really old, yet really good, example.
The infographic above, considered by many the granddaddy of infographics, is based on Charles Minard’s visual depiction of Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812. This visual elegantly details what ended up being the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s reign as France’s emperor. Here’s all you need to know. The green area (read left to right) depicts Napoleon's advance into Russia. See how it keeps getting thinner? That’s because troops were dying. The yellow area represents their retreat and the continued death of Napoleon’s troops. And below it is a graph of the temperatures dropping during their retreat. This graphical representation (created in 1869!!) is a brilliant way to tell a dreadful story with painful clarity about the advance and then disastrous retreat from Russia of Napoleon’s Grande Armée.
Why’s it so great? Because it tells a very complex story in stunning simplicity using a powerfully constructed visual.
The Principles of Visual Storytelling
Principle #1: The Importance of Clarity
A favorite Albert Einstein quote here at Motive3 is, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Being able to communicate in a clear and simple manner is essential for success in almost all areas of life, both personal and professional. Clear and simple communication ensures you are understood, saves time and resources, builds trust, reduces conflicts, improves productivity, and enhances decision-making.
A visual story helps you achieve clarity because it serves as the construct or “container” to communicate clearly. It helps . . .
- Organize your ideas in a logical and coherent way. This makes it easier for the viewer to follow your argument and understand your message.
- Simplify complex information. By breaking down information into smaller, more manageable parts, you make it easier for your audience to understand. This is particularly important when you are dealing with technical or scientific information that may be difficult for a layperson to grasp.
- Communicate your message in a way that is visually appealing and engaging. It captures your audience’s attention and keeps them engaged.
Surely, it’s not rocket science! Or is it? Take a look at this infographic from NASA depicting their new deep space rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). I’m not a rocket scientist, but I’m thoroughly intrigued by space travel. I have no interest in reading a dry, boring article about Artemis 1 . . . but I will take time to dive into this clever and interesting infographic. Taking a topic like deep space rockets and making it feel inviting and interesting through this visual approach draws the audience in. It also takes what is obviously a difficult subject and breaks it down in an easy to understand and memorable format. I know more now than I did before about deep space rockets because of this visually informative infographic. Clarity achieved!
Principle #2: The Power of Storytelling
Storytelling may be the most powerful application of a visual story. The science behind the power of storytelling is conclusive. Stories appeal to our senses and our emotions, not only drawing our attention more easily in the moment, but also leaving a lasting impression if done right.
At its core, storytelling is about creating a connection with the audience and engaging them emotionally and intellectually. A good storyteller is able to capture the attention of their listeners, build suspense and tension, and evoke a range of emotions.
By using a visual to tell a story, you can create a narrative that is engaging and memorable. This is particularly important in branding, marketing, and advertising; where the goal is to create an emotional connection with the audience to entertain, educate, and/or inspire them to action.
Applying storytelling fundamentals can help you tell a more captivating visual story by…
- Creating a narrative arc that guides the viewer’s attention and builds suspense.
- Using visual cues and symbols to evoke emotions and convey meaning. For example, using color, shape, and composition to create a sense of urgency or excitement.
- Creating a memorable brand identity. By using a consistent tone of voice, visual elements, and design principles in your communication, you can create a visual language that is instantly recognizable and memorable (more on this later).
Wait, you’re not a storyteller you say? I beg to differ. If you bear the responsibility of delivering any sort of communication (verbally or written), you are a storyteller. And the good news is there are lots of resources easily available to learn how to structure your story for the greatest impact.
Let’s keep things simple and look at how some of the best movies are made following the Hero’s Journey, popularized by Joseph Campbell. If you’ve seen a Star Wars movie or Lord of The Rings or Harry Potter, you’ve experienced the Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey is not just for entertainment, it can easily be applied to a business context.
Here’s what the Hero’s Journey looks like (in a visual story of course):
If the Hero’s Journey above felt a bit overwhelming, here’s a more simplified version using yet another type of visual story that still tells a complete story with the same story arc.
Principle #3: The Role of Design
Design plays a critical role in creating a successful visual story. Design is not just about making things look pretty; it’s about creating a visual language that communicates your message effectively. Good design is essential for creating a visual story that is easy to understand, visually appealing, and memorable.
Design principles like hierarchy, balance, and contrast are essential for creating a visual story that guides the viewer’s attention and creates a sense of order. A well-designed visual story can also help to create an emotional connection with the viewer by using color, shape, and composition to create a sense of mood and atmosphere.
When considering the design of a visual story, it’s helpful to know what you want to say and who your intended audience is before designing how to say it visually. Once you know what the story is and who it’s for, the design brings it all together.
And you don’t need to purchase expensive design tools or spend a fortune hiring a designer. Some of the most effective visual stories use black and white sketches or simple graphic elements that are easy to understand.
Here are some examples of basic visual stories using simple graphic elements:
Note: Make sure your design elements (shapes, colors, images, etc) align with your story and help communicate clearly what you’re trying to say.
Principle #4: The Importance of Consistency
Consistency in design of a visual story helps to create a sense of order and structure, which makes it easier for the viewer to understand your message. Keep your visual elements like color, typography, and layout consistent throughout to establish a coherent and cohesive communication.
But make sure to consider the context in which the visual story will be used. The same visual story may not be effective in all situations. For example, a highly detailed infographic may be appropriate for a technical report, but may not be suitable for a social media post. Tailor the visual story to the audience and the context in which it will be used.
Benefits of Creating a Visual Story
If you’re still not convinced creating visual stories will make you a better communicator, let’s review some of the most important benefits:
- Increased Understanding: A visual story can help to simplify complex information and make it easier to understand.
- Improved Memory: Visual aids are more memorable than text alone, which means that a visual story can help your message to stick in the viewer’s mind.
- Increased Engagement: A well-designed visual story can capture your audience’s attention and keep them engaged throughout your presentation.
- Emotional Connection: Visual cues and storytelling fundamentals can help to create an emotional connection with the viewer, which can be particularly effective in marketing and advertising.
- Consistency and Branding: A visual story can help to create a brand identity that is instantly recognizable by keeping visual elements consistent.
The Bottom Line
Knowing how to create visual stories to express and communicate ideas is critical to success in business, design, and communication. With attention scarcity abounding, visual aids are more effective than text alone in communicating complex information, and a well-designed visual story can help to create a logical flow of information, simplify complex ideas, and engage your audience. By using design principles and maintaining consistency in both design and content, a visual story can help to create a memorable brand identity and increase understanding and engagement. Whether you are presenting data, telling a story, or outlining a process, a visual story is an essential tool for success.
Learn more about our brand storytelling to help you master the art of delivering compelling communications.