Visual storytelling: how to tell a story with images

What is Visual Storytelling?

Visual storytelling is a captivating form of narrative that seamlessly combines the power of imagery with the vast reach of social media. By leveraging the potential of graphics, music, voices, and sound, visual storytelling transforms a tale into an immersive experience. Throughout history, visual storytelling has evolved from ancient animal hunting chronicles to contemporary mediums like picture books, comics, video games, Instagram, Snapchat, Hollywood’s mesmerizing 3D films, and the boundless realms of virtual reality. It encompasses a broad spectrum of visual arts, catering to the creative endeavors of artists and designers alike, including photography, media, illustration, and the compelling world of infographics.

The 2 basic drivers that support visual storytelling

  1. Our human brain processes images much faster than text: In fact, images are processed by the brain a staggering 60,000 times faster than text. This remarkable visual processing capability allows us to quickly absorb and comprehend information presented through images, enabling a swift and engaging narrative experience. Moreover, a remarkable 90% of the information transmitted to the brain is visual, underscoring the profound impact visuals have on our cognitive processes.
  2. The human brain has a natural inclination towards stories as a preferred mode of receiving information. Research reveals that a substantial 92% of consumers express a desire for brands to convey their messages through storytelling in advertisements.

The two basic drivers that support visual storytelling


The definition of Visual storytelling in the context of marketing

Visual storytelling is a marketing strategy that harnesses compelling narratives, putting the customer at the center of the story, staged with a visual emotional experience and delivered effectively along the buyer’s journey, in order to enhance customer lives and generate business results. Shlomi Ron

This means that to create more and more resonance with your audience, as a marketer, you have to make them the hero of your story, addressing their needs, not yours. Why? As Rolf Jensen rightly states, we are moving into the emotion-based ‘dream society’, where customers take product functionality for granted and make purchasing decisions based on how positive they believe a product can offer them.

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Visual storytelling strategy: experience is the key

In the realm of business, companies that prioritize providing memorable experiences, surpassing mere technical functionalities, often earn the coveted spotlight of public attention. Apple stands out as a prime exemplar in this regard. Despite many of us possessing older iPhones that continue to operate flawlessly, the allure of acquiring the latest iPhone iteration remains irresistible, even with its incremental upgrade benefits. This captivating phenomenon can be attributed to the distinctive experience that Apple consistently delivers, which is a unique experience that makes the Apple story possible.

the apple story of visual storytelling

The significance of storytelling in business and marketing is clearly evident when exploring the dedicated section on the topic in Wikipedia. Marketers harness the power of visual storytelling techniques because they recognize the inherent human desire to be entertained, stimulated, and understood. To effectively engage their audience, marketers must immerse themselves in their customers’ perspectives, viewing the world through virtual glasses, and then infuse authentic storytelling elements that resonate on both personal and business levels. Kathy Klotz-Guest, a visual storytelling strategist, further emphasizes the importance of incorporating meaningful resolutions that extend beyond rational business outcomes, advocating for social changes that impact larger causes, such as the environment. The true magic of corporate storytelling emerges when vulnerability or imperfection is interwoven, allowing the audience to witness the human aspects of the narrative and cultivate trust and empathy towards the message, ultimately enabling them to mirror themselves within the story. Why? Compelling research indicates that when we engage with stories rich in sensory details, such as varied feelings, colors, or smells, our brain’s response mirrors that of real-life experiences. This underscores the profound neurological impact of storytelling and how it activates corresponding regions of the brain, enabling readers to vividly imagine and connect with the story’s elements on a deeply personal level.

Visual storytelling in wikipedia

How visual storytelling has evolved thanks to digital

The strategic importance of imagery in marketing has always been significant, but in today’s digital age, its impact has reached unprecedented levels. This can be attributed to the rapid advancements in technology, which have unleashed the power of visual-based social tools such as smartphones, tablets, and popular platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram. These platforms, coupled with a plethora of image management apps, have reshaped the marketing landscape, providing businesses with unparalleled opportunities to leverage visual storytelling.

In the past, storytelling techniques were primarily confined to television advertising, film, and theater. However, in the contemporary era, visual storytelling has become one of the most important tools for those doing Social Marketing, enabling companies of all sizes to share their unique narratives through simple photographs, images, videos, and micro-videos. With the aid of special filters offered by numerous free apps, these visual assets can be aesthetically enhanced and effortlessly published on the web, shared on social media, or transformed into eye-catching infographics. Visual storytelling has a rich historical lineage, rooted in ancient forms of art and human expression. Epic tales, fairy tales, pictographs, paintings, and sculptures throughout history were all based on the art of narrative. Even the caves of Chauvet, France, adorned with primitive men’s painted rocks, stand as a testament to humanity’s innate inclination for visual storytelling.

In today’s business landscape, companies have a unique opportunity to harness the power of visual storytelling to captivate their audience in new and compelling ways. By crafting and sharing a captivating story, businesses can evoke curiosity, nurture empathy, and foster deeper connections with their customers. Visual storytelling transcends the limitations of words, offering a fresh and engaging approach that allows companies to share their brand story, spark interest, and encourage meaningful interactions with their target audience.

Primitive men and the  painted rocks of the Chauvet caves in France.

Thanks to Visual Storytelling, companies have the opportunity in a different way (no longer just in words) to tell their story, creating curiosity, empathy, and sharing with customers.

Instagram and visual storytelling

Instagram offers many possibilities to better communicate our brand. From microblogging linked to captions, to visual storytelling of images, to Instagram stories thanks to which you can create collections of photos and videos visible for only 24 hours. “Here and now”, in short. Find ways to be original and make yourself recognizable, differentiate yourself, and offer quality content: you can’t go wrong! A good idea could therefore be to show a behind-the-scenes look at your company, the manufacturing processes of your product, a nice and cheerful presentation of your team, and a video tutorial. In short, the trick of storytelling on Instagram is to give room for creativity and reveal yourself a little! And it can fit nicely into your company’s Social Media Strategy by not only increasing your visibility to your target audience but also improving your company business with a view to possible new sales and profits.

visual storytelling in Instagram

Pinterest, Facebook, and Visual storytelling

If users are more likely to interact with a brand that posts a photo and images are the most attention-grabbing type of content, it is only natural that marketers choose Facebook and Pinterest as their preferred channels. By publishing high-quality, eye-catching, and curious images, it is easy to create engagement: whether promoting clothing, food, electronics, or even services, the important thing is not just to tell a good story, but to tell it ‘visually’.

There are essentially three dynamics to keep in mind:

  1. The degree of professionalism in the creation of the content image is losing importance. The ease of use of tools such as Instagram and the like, and the accessibility of content dissemination have meant that users simply perceive content as ‘interesting’ or ‘uninteresting’, regardless of who has produced and published it;
  2. Less and less attention and time are devoted to each piece of content, even if it is considered attractive: the trend is therefore towards miniaturization of content. Lots of images, short and impressive texts, and high publication frequency are the new directions to generate interest;
  3. Users do not only want to look at images but also ‘use’ them: not only by ‘linking’ and commenting but by re-sharing content that they find most entertaining or that can best contribute to their self-definition on social networks because it is close to their interests or lifestyle. For the company, this means proposing not only self-referential content (e.g. product photos) but also other types of content, as long as they are consistent with the brand image.

In this mash-up of branded and user-generated content, the approach is totally different from that of advertising, where a message is carefully packaged and distributed in a unidirectional way. On social media, users want to ‘be friends with the brand, have fun and play with it.

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Some examples of visual storytelling

In the realm of branded visual storytelling, numerous companies have successfully embraced innovative approaches. To conclude, here are some companies that are successfully experimenting with new forms of branded visual storytelling:

Sephora created a contest on Pinterest called “Sephora Color Wash” in which they invited users to create a dedicated board from their account with a Hair & Beauty category and pin images containing Sephora products and their favorite color. Ten $250 gift cards were up for grabs. In this way, not only were photos of Sephora products shared on personal profiles, but thanks to the categorization they could be viewed every day by a large number of users, maximizing brand exposure.

Sephora contest on Pinterest  called "Sephora Color Wash"

The restaurant Comodo, in New York, was one of the first to experiment with the Instagram menu, which allows customers to view dishes (and user comments) online before ordering. No more peeking at neighboring tables!

Comodo Instagram Menu

UNICEF uses its Pinterest account to chronicle the plight of children in underdeveloped countries and the non-profit organization’s work to improve their conditions. Each pin is linked to a page from which donations can be made and help UNICEF’s various causes around the world.

UNICEF  uses its Pinterest account to chronicle the plight of children in underdeveloped countries

Sony launched the first music video clip created via Instagram, for the song ‘Wetsuit’ by The Vaccines. To participate in the creation, fans of the group had to post photos taken during the summer at festivals and other music events and post them with the hashtag #Vaccinesvideo

General Electric created a corporate blog on Tumblr consisting only of pictures and videos. The only texts are captions and hashtags. Thus airplane propellers, metal valves, and various components come to life, thanks to interesting shots and filters. Fans can interact by sharing pictures and choosing the locations of the next photos.

Aldo Shoes launched a campaign linking the online to the real world: at a small stand located on the street in Tel Aviv, passers-by were invited to take a photo of their shoes and post it via Instagram with the tag #aldo for a chance to instantly win a new pair of shoes.

aldo shoes launched a campaign to online to the real world

Institute of Visual Storytelling “La Jetée'”

La Jetée and Fondazione Sistema Toscana (FST) together with the Department of Computer Science of the University of Pisa (Unipi) realize a specialization training course aimed at improving the skills of young artists and designers in audiovisual projects in virtual reality (VR) for web environments.

lajetee visual storytelling school

Visual storytelling tools

I would now like to suggest some very useful tools that can help you in your work as a visual storyteller. Tools with which you can create eye-catching graphics, from images to videos to infographics.

    • Cinematic: is an iPhone App that allows you to create short videos lasting up to 15 seconds, while also allowing you to use a series of preset filters to give your videos special effects. With Cinematic, you can then share your video on Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube;
    • Shorthand: is a tool avowedly devoted to storytelling. It boasts among its user companies of the caliber of the BBC, The Guardian, and The Telegraph. In practice, it allows you to create real web pages full of videos, images, and text. The plans offered here are not exactly cheap, being a more professional tool than the previous one;
  • Canva: this is a very useful tool for writing sentences on images and quickly creating impactful graphic content to share on social networks, without having to go through specific software such as Photoshop. It allows you to choose from a number of pre-set formats, e.g. for Facebook posts and cover videos, and provides a library of free images, fonts, and templates plus others for a fee, allowing you to upload your own images and save your projects as well;
  • Steller: Similar to the previous one, but with a special feature, it is only used on mobile apps. It allows you to create beautiful stories using photos, videos, and text, and then share them on various social networks. Steller is not only an app, but also a community: users can share their stories within the community and interact with other users by commenting and liking their stories;
  • Forget boring, hard-to-read charts! With you can create animated charts, with the possibility of adding tooltips and useful information when hovering the pointer over the data. It starts from a free Basic plan up to Enterprise solutions;
  • Thinglink: This is a handy tool for creating animated graphics. The possibilities and areas of application are many, from e-commerce to maps, blogs, and infographics. Here, too, it starts with a free Basic plan, which allows you to test certain functionalities, up to a customized plan.

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The focus for a correct visual storytelling strategy

In summary, a successful visual storytelling strategy encompasses the following focal points:

  • Listen to your audience: just like in traditional storytelling, it is crucial to understand and connect with your audience. Pay attention to their needs, desires, and challenges. Craft a narrative that resonates with them by presenting an initial situation of balance for the hero, followed by disruptions and eventual resolution.
  • Follow a strategic approach: determine when and what you want to communicate, as well as where and with whom you wish to engage. Develop a clear plan and invest in high-quality content. Whenever possible, use original photos and videos that are purpose-made for your brand’s story.
  • Convey emotions: humanize your brand by showcasing its human side. Remember that ultimately, you are addressing people, and it is essential to evoke genuine emotions and establish a connection. By revealing the human aspects of your brand, you can foster trust, empathy, and relatability.
If you are ready to embark on your journey as a visual storyteller, there are resources available to assist you. Consider participating in customized visual storytelling workshops that focus on enhancing your communication skills and better connecting with your target audience, ultimately facilitating faster business growth. You may also find valuable insights in articles and courses such as the Web Designer article or take this Web Marketing Specialist Course at Digital Coach.
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