Why visuals are essential in crafting a narrative


Picture this – It’s 1994, and Steve Jobs walks into a canteen, and asks several staff a simple question. “Who is the most powerful person in the world?"

One staffer responds by saying it’s Nelson Mandela. In his confident fashion Jobs declared, “No!… You are all wrong… The most powerful person in the world is the story teller.” The staff are wondering what’s going on, when Jobs adds, “The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come and Disney has a monopoly on the storyteller business.”

Any parent will relate to Jobs and his comments on the power of storytellers (my little one will often burst into song with a chorus from Moana or Frozen). But visual storytelling isn’t new – the oldest cave paintings, in northern Spain, are almost 41,000 years old. What is new is the variety of different mediums that we have to tell a story visually. These include news and information-based narrative forms, such as photojournalism, the photo essay, or the documentary film, and entertainment forms, including movies, television, comics. Any kind of a story, told visually, is essentially a visual narrative.

You don’t need to be a Disney or Pixar to tell a story through visuals. It’s easier than ever to craft a narrative thanks to technology. The ubiquitous smartphone has transformed every single person holding one into a director and narrator. The internet gives us all a platform to share and disseminate our visual imagery.

Let’s talk psychology first. Visuals are impactful because we’re hard-wired to prefer them over words. According to researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, our brains can process entire images in as little as 13 milliseconds. Visuals also increase user engagement significantly, by a factor of nine in some cases.

One of the most successful PR campaigns in recent memory was Dove’s “Real Beauty”. Based on the compelling insight that fewer than five percent of women find themselves beautiful, the campaign was via a variety of elements, including print, video and outdoor advertising.

The most impactful elements were the visuals. Tick box billboards showcased women of various races, ages and shapes next to options such as “Fat or Fit?” and “Gray or Gorgeous?” The concept engaged consumers, who were encouraged to weigh in by answering the tick box questions on the campaign’s website.

The “Evolution” video spot, which showed how women are transformed by hair, makeup, lighting and digital image manipulation for a photo shoot, was a viral sensation. Another visual concept was Dove’s “Sketches” ad, which showed women describing themselves to a hidden police sketch artist and comparing the resulting sketches with drawings made from other participants’ descriptions of the same woman. It became one of the most successful viral ads ever. The bottom-line message to the story was simple for all to understand, and was told beautifully through a simple visual storyboard. The message was clear, namely that women are more beautiful than they think they are. Visual narratives have sustained the campaign’s lifespan since its launch in 2004, and have helped the Dove brand realize hundreds of millions of dollars in earned media.

If you’re eager to use visuals to transform your storytelling, here’s some great advice from Susan Smith Ellis, chief marketing officer at Getty Images, on how to use visuals to create an impactful narrative.

1. Think generic: If you want to drive change with as many different groups as possible, choose imagery that resonates as widely as possible and doesn’t just work with one group.

2. Don’t be too literal: Real images are powerful and shocking, but try to strike a balance; metaphorical imagery can also be very evocative at communicating why change is needed.

3. Be authentic: Use photographers and visuals from a region where the issues exist; they can create the most authentic imagery.

4. Choice composition: Use a graphic and powerful composition that works across different media, from a mobile screen through to a big billboard.

Alex Malouf