Stories have been the way humans have communicated since as far back as history can trace. Visuals have been central to many of these stories, from cave paintings to political maps to modern-day advertisements.
While visual stories have varied widely, in both content and format, the structure has been surprisingly consistent.
In this article, I will show you the major methods for using visual storytelling in informational graphics, highlighting how visual stories can help your organization communicate key ideas. There will also be visual storytelling examples and templates you can customize to tell your own visual story.
Table of contents:
- What is visual storytelling
- Why visual storytelling matters
- When not to use visual storytelling
- Top visual storytelling techniques
What is visual storytelling?
Visual storytelling refers to when visuals are used to tell a story. This is why people also use the term “visual narrative” when they refer to visual storytelling.
Visual storytelling is something we generally appreciate, from films to video games to social media posts. So much so that it seems like common sense that if you want to tell a story or convey a message, you’ll use a visual to do so.
Visual media that can be used for storytelling include photographs, illustrations, videos, and graphics, including informational graphics or infographics.
These visual communication tools are great, not only for grabbing and engaging the audience’s attention but also for resonating with and eliciting emotions, which are what drive stories forward.
Visuals can also help us connect with people or characters, imagine ourselves in new scenarios or settings, and understand the most complex or nuanced narratives or plots.
For example, when we wanted to examine in detail how six different popular movies all follow the hero’s journey…
…instead of using mere words, we decided to use visual storytelling and created an infographic that depicts each movie plot as it fits into different stages of the hero’s journey:
Why visual storytelling matters
While humanists (anthropologists, philosophers, theologists, etc) have confirmed that stories are how we learn and evolve as a human species, scientists and researchers have quantified that:
- Our visual sense is our primary means of taking in new information
- It’s easier and faster for us to process images than text, which is especially important with attention spans becoming shorter
- Visuals help people memorize and recall information, and they can even enhance motivation and influence behavior
For example, this article teaches parents how to know when their child’s flu turns serious:
Instead of just plain text, this story can come to life with some thoughtful visual elements, as shown in this infographic which is a lot easier to read and more motivating:
Visual storytelling is powerful, which is why it has become a popular tool for content marketing. It’s also useful for thought leadership, learning and development, human resource management, customer and client education, and more.
This infographic explains why visual content is more effective than plain text and different types of business materials you can apply visual storytelling to:
When not to use visual storytelling
With all its power, visual storytelling is not a panacea and it isn’t always the best option. It may not be appropriate if…
The story is of a very sensitive nature
For example, if you are discussing a topic related to violence, then relevant images can be distressing and even paralyzing to the viewer.
The visuals are distracting from important parts of the story
Visuals should facilitate and support storytelling, but they can be so captivating that they take attention away from key insights and messages.
The story and/or the visuals are enforcing messages that are false or misleading
Here are some examples of grossly distorted graphs that make the visuals misleading:
- Bad Infographics: The Worst Infographics of 2020 (+ Lessons for 2021)
- 5 Ways Writers Use Misleading Graphs to Manipulate You
Top visual storytelling techniques
Stories are innately human because they speak to universal human needs, as described by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:
There are four primary techniques for visual storytelling, and each speaks to a different set of these needs. The techniques that are connected to our deepest needs tend to also be the most powerful.
Depending on where your audience is in their own journey, they will need different stories. Dramatic stories are great for building awareness and desire, while more nuanced stories can be good for increasing knowledge and ability.
Here are the top visual storytelling techniques, ranked from most potent to least, with examples and tips for each.
Classic story arc
This technique is what storytellers think of when they think of a story. They think of heroes and the conflicts they face. No matter the characters and plot, the hallmark of a traditional story is that it has a beginning, middle, and end.
The classic story arc often speaks to our needs for safety and security, which is what gives it its immense power.
This technique is a good choice if you’re looking to build awareness and motivate people, especially a wide variety of people.
It’s useful if there’s a key problem or conflict that you want to center, like this example of an infographic about a crisis:
A classic story can inspire solutions, even recommend specific ones (this is often referred to as a “pitch”). This infographic tells the story of how Airwaves (the “hero”) used Twitter (the solution) to achieve success.
As you can tell, this visual storytelling technique is effective in showcasing case studies or customer success stories.
Here’s another great example of a case study – an infographic about how Venngage helps College UnMazed save $100k using infographics:
You can customize case study templates and start applying this visual storytelling technique to your content marketing strategy today.
Tips: If you choose to use a classic story arc structure, makes sure you include these key ingredients:
- An easy-to-follow narrative with a beginning, middle and end.
- A challenge or obstacle, or a series of them—this is usually introduced in the beginning or middle.
- A solution or resolution—sometimes this is a call to action at the end.
Sometimes stories are less about action and more about people—their feelings, their personalities, their lives. These people can be leaders, change makers, or everyday folk like significant others or family.
These stories help meet our needs for connection and community. These needs are core to who we are as humans, so these stories can be impactful, but perhaps in a more subtle way.
If you are looking to motivate people in a sustainable way, center people in your visual stories.
It can be as simple as using first-person narratives or quotes to drive your visual narrative, like in this example:
If your story is emotional in any way, then the people component is essential.
Sometimes showcasing specific individuals is difficult or inappropriate. In this case, you can use illustrations and theoretical “I” statements, as this example shows.
- If it’s appropriate and possible, use photos of real people/faces as research has shown they elicit emotional responses in viewers.
- Be conscientious of your language—use words and phrases that the people you are highlighting have consented to
- Always use inclusive imagery—you can learn more and get more tips on designing for diversity and inclusion here
Step by step explanation
The two techniques listed above are great if your visual story is one that can easily appeal to a fairly general audience. If you want to offer detailed or complex information and/or target specific groups, then you may need a different approach.
Step-by-step explanations are great for meeting your audience’s needs for learning and growth. If they already have awareness and motivation, these stories can equip them with the knowledge and ability to take action, including potentially engaging in new behaviors.
If your story is complex and/or if it involves data of some kind, then be sure to take your time walking them through a thorough narrative, one step at a time.
This next example is targeted at individuals interested in health. The “steps” in this infographic include detailing how BMI is calculated, showing an example, discussing the usefulness of BMI, then describing how BMI is correlated with body fatness.
- 28 Process Infographic Templates and Visualization Tips
- 20+ Step Infographic Templates to Visualize a Process
Tips: You will need to scaffold your story into different topics to discuss or questions to address.
Start with the general, big-picture context and proceed to more specific points gradually. Depending on the complexity of your story, and your audience’s current knowledge level, outline three to seven “steps.”
If you need more than seven, then you will need to break the content into different separate stories, which could be shared sequentially.
Report on key ideas
If your audience is specific, and if you are wanting to merely reinforce their existing knowledge then you don’t need a dramatic story or lengthy explanation.
Here is an example of an infographic about a very niche topic and clearly for a group that has certain pre-existing knowledge:
If you are thinking you’ll just report out ideas, be sure there isn’t any information you’re planning to include that is entirely new, emotionally charged, or complex in any other way. That kind of information may need to be delivered using one of the techniques described previously.
While this infographic is for managers in general, it touches on some complex topics like giving feedback, being consistent, letting go of responsibilities, and role modeling.
In this case, an infographic can provide an overview, but it likely won’t change the behaviors it recommends. At least some of these changes may require greater awareness, motivation, perhaps even knowledge and ability—stories that stimulate these will need to be of a different kind.
Tips: As stated previously, assess whether this technique suits your goal, and limit the main ideas to 3-7 in total.
The other key to success with reporting is to know your audience really well, in particular what their existing knowledge is, for this is the “lens” through which they will process the information you share.
Summary: Craft your narrative using visual media to effectively convey ideas and influence the audience
If you are wanting to change people’s hearts, minds, or actions, then visual storytelling is a necessity—so long as you are approaching it thoughtfully.
Once you identify its true purpose, you’ll know how to best structure and tell your visual story so it will serve your audience as well as your goal.
You don’t need to be an artist or designer to tell your story visually, you only need to practice, practice, practice. With a visual communication solution like Venngage, you can easily select a colorful template and add icons, illustrations, photos, and/or charts that support your narrative.
Every day, all day, your company is looking to communicate key ideas. Start building your visual storytelling strategy and skills today!