Visual storytelling involves using rich visual elements to communicate information, emotions, and ideas. It can take many forms and serve various functions, from brand marketing to internal training.
Most businesses will do visual storytelling to some extent, even if they are not always aware of doing so. It deserves to be better understood. By understanding its strengths and features, businesses can sharpen how they employ it. Conscious and considered use can support business objectives, internally and externally.
This article will offer some approaches to visual storytelling. But, first of all, why is storytelling such a powerful idea for businesses?
We thrive on stories
Storytelling seems to be an essential feature of being human. Stories connect us to the world around us: our environment, past, and other people. Across our lives, often subconsciously, we use stories to share understandings and to create connections.
Numerous studies have demonstrated how stories affect us. They spark our brains. As we listen, we involve ourselves more deeply in the narrative: what is shared matters more. Chemicals such as oxytocin and cortisol are released in our bodies, heightening our emotional engagement and forming new memories. Humans have told stories for thousands of years because we like them, and they work. Likewise, businesses need to tell stories.
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First, businesses need stories when reaching out to new and existing customers to increase sales and nurture customer loyalty. Such stories may address the following:
- What problem does the product or service solve? How will it enhance the customer’s life? For example, out of all the sales apps available, what makes the selected one ideal?
- How was the company formed? What are its values? Why should customers trust it?
- What will the purchase, and customer care process be?
- What will using the product or service be like for me?
Second, businesses need to share stories with employees to deliver their strategies. These may address the following points:
- What challenges does the business face? What does it need to do to survive and thrive?
- What values does the business prioritize? How are these embedded in the workplace culture?
- Why should new talent come and work for the company? What makes the corporate culture effective?
- Why is a particular new piece of software necessary?
We may hear the word ‘stories’ and think of novels and films. However, stories do not need to be long and complicated. Some may be – especially internal ones explaining sophisticated procedures.
On the other hand, they might be incredibly short. That doesn’t necessarily make these any less significant. Indeed, stories with big messages can be very brief. The salient point is that visual storytelling can potentially support any information or idea that needs communicating.
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We will look at examples of business stories as we go on. Before that, it is worth exploring why the form of a story, and the media it uses, matters. That, in turn, will help us to appreciate what makes for good visual storytelling.
The way we tell stories matters
Our brains like stories. But only some methods of telling those stories are equal.
We know that from personal experience. We predict, for example, that, on a typical busy day, a large chunk of plain text is less likely to be attention-grabbing, engaging, and memorable than a well-crafted video sharing the same information. Selecting a good image is just as important as choosing the right domain name for your website (who sells domain names?)
But why is that? There are two ideas to remember:
- Humans are visual creatures
- Our attention span seems to be declining
Let us consider each of these points.
1) Humans are visual creatures
We are hard-wired to engage with and process visual stimuli. Half of the human brain is devoted (either directly or indirectly) to processing visual information. And it does this incredibly effectively. For example, the brain can identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds.
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Moreover, numerous studies have demonstrated how visual aids improve engagement with materials and information recall. Here are some examples:
- Tweets with images are 34% more likely to be retweeted than tweets with none.
- LinkedIn posts featuring videos are shared 20 times more often than posts with other types of content.
- Numerous studies have highlighted better engagement levels when videos are prominent in marketing.
- People’s ability to recall information after three days rises from just 10% with text alone to over 60% when accompanied by a suitable image.
Given all this, it is not surprising that visual content can improve user engagement with e-commerce businesses significantly. Well-chosen visual elements make communication more impactful and help it stick in our memories for longer.
2) Our attention span is declining
The above is especially important when considered alongside research suggesting a downward trend in our attention spans. Scientists now reckon we often have shorter attention spans than goldfish! A research project back in 2000 calculated the average attention span (of an internet user) to be 12 seconds. But, by 2015, this had reduced to 8 seconds.
Consumers are spending more time in an online world. That world is crowded and noisy. Users get bombarded with information. Links to click, adverts, emails, alerts, notifications: an ever-present temptation to click on the next thing. It is challenging for businesses to hold our attention long enough to be heard. Competition for that attention is incredibly high.
- Symptomatically, one research project found that on the average web page, readers are likely to read at most 20% of the words before moving on
- Likewise, internet users only give a website 10 seconds before deciding whether to move on. Consumers are flighty: every second with a user counts
The same is undoubtedly true of employees in a business. Need to communicate a new strategy or workflow to a team, so it sticks? If so, ensure the message competes with all the other demands on their attention!
Visual storytelling helps our brains.
So, humans – especially online – are prone to flightiness and will move on rapidly unless content grabs them almost immediately. No wonder marketing is hard! On the plus side, we are very visual creatures and love a good story.
While that is a rather simplistic characterization, it underscores the value of visual storytelling as a strategy in an increasingly digital world. Leveraging people’s fondness for a good story – using effective visual media to deliver it – works.
One UK survey found that 79% of consumers wanted brands to tell stories. 55% said they would be more likely to buy if they liked that story. Building stories around a brand is not a distraction. Indeed, when asked what content they wanted in marketing, ‘humorous, dramatic, or heart-warming stories’ was the most popular option (after monetary offers).
A well-told story can, quite simply, improve the bottom line. Imagine an organization that is looking for a digital workplace development platform. Marketing research suggests that a short visual demonstration of a platform’s main features more successfully engages them than a text-based approach.
Visual storytelling suits our cognitive behavior and complements our increasingly digital lives. Technology offers more options than ever for a business to tell compelling visual stories. Using technology to tell great visual stories makes sense.
A vast palette of visual storytelling tools
Let us look at a few approaches to visual storytelling.
Every picture tells a story. A well-chosen photo can capture and, after the briefest glance, convey a range of ideas and emotions.
Photo by Oscar Sutton on Unsplash
Photographs can serve a literal function, showing your product or service to customers. They can also be more symbolic, conveying a mood or experience.
Whether on a website, email, billboard, or poster, a well-chosen image can grab people’s attention and pull them into your message. Every image should serve a function: What is its purpose? What does it convey?
Take a look at the dog in the photo above. The imagery shows a happy dog, implying a healthy animal from a good home. Emotively, it may work to inspire an equal desire amongst other pet owners. This image could promote healthy dog food or a healthy work/life balance.
Memes are typically static images, often incorporating added text to make a point. They are prominent on social media and can communicate a story quickly, humorously, and in a relatable way.
They are quick to create and can get rapidly copied and shared by users. In a single snapshot, memes can carry much meaning, often linking to culture and society more broadly. Through sharing and spreading, their careful use can raise awareness of a brand’s story and proposition.
GIFs are short looped videos or animations, sometimes just a few seconds or more. They are easy to produce and share, making them useful for tactical messaging – reinforcing a story. They can attract a user’s attention and make a point without asking much of the user!
They can feature in many ways across content, including social media, emails, and websites. Perhaps a business wants to avoid losing subscribers in the new year; they might include a ‘Happy New Year’ GIF at the top of an email: just one small element of a bigger story aimed at building customer relationships.
Infographics are a great way to communicate a process or quite dry information clearly and engagingly. For example, an infographic can set out the process of buying a home.
An infographic can also present an overview of how inventory management tools support operations.
They can work well where statistics are involved. Scaling sales organizations want the ability to visualize attainment in a way that allows them to understand success or failure ‘at a glance,’ said QuotaPath Co-Founder and Head of Product Cole Evetts. Take a look at this infographic about infographics, for example.
Image sourced from Slideshare.net
Infographics often include charts or diagrams. They also work well to compare different products or services, for example, examining features of the best free video conferencing apps.
Many surveys find videos are the content format most liked by online consumers. The common theme is: don’t just tell me about your product or business; show me. It is no surprise that video is also one of the preferred types of sales enablement tools.
Videos inherently lend themselves to storytelling. Face-to-face conversations or client video calls with potential leads are invaluable. But with resources limited, most businesses will prioritize only the best leads for these. But to get clients into your sales pipeline in the first place, a cleverly crafted video is a great way to pique interest.
For example, see how Reckon, an accounting company, uses video marketing to entice potential customers to imagine the benefits of their service.
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Animations share many of the advantages of video. They can be short and snappy yet bring big (or complicated) concepts to life clearly and elegantly.
How exactly does a product or service work? What makes it so successful? Why does your business need to adopt a new workflow? Animations are a fantastic way to explain these things. Well-crafted animations can make complex stories seem simple.
Animations can serve so many functions, from teaching to persuading and promoting. There is a wealth of great examples of animations online. Take a look at this one which explains the environmental importance of the work of the North American Forest Partnership.
Some ideas or processes are easier to demonstrate more abstractly or symbolically. Hypothetically, a software company keeps being asked by clients, ‘what is continuous testing?‘ An animation would be a brilliant vehicle for explaining this. Their potential to pull disparate elements into a streamlined and coherent story makes them very powerful.
Visual storytelling: a guaranteed winner?
The approaches outlined above can support so many business functions. Whether building a brand presence or strengthening the internal culture of an organization, visual storytelling can clarify messaging and deepen its impact.
Moreover, it can be a springboard to other great ideas. For example, a business may have great video testimonials on its website; why not now live video stream a conversation with a satisfied customer? It can bring stories to life and allow users to interact directly with them.
Yet, visual storytelling is not a guaranteed, fix-all solution. An organization’s visual stories must be high quality to compete with all the other content available. They must be thought-through and well-considered: coherent and consistent with each other and the overall brand.
Organizations should consider the connotations of their visual stories. Are there any elements that risk alienating groups of customers or employees? Without care, unintended cultural references might slip into visual storytelling.
Test, and get creative!
The best marketers are probably “Part Artist, Part Scientist”. That is a healthy attitude when using visual storytelling in a business.
Businesses could use A/B testing to explore alternative approaches. What engages the market most? Employee surveys could indicate preferred staff training approaches. But get creative! Team members, as consumers themselves, will have loads of ideas themselves. Why not pull the virtual whiteboard apps up and collect their suggestions?
Ultimately, visual storytelling is a powerful tool for many purposes. But success only comes with fortitude and care.