10 Simple Rules of Visual Storytelling

Ernesto Olivares
Jan 1, 2016 · 15 min read

Learn How To Use Visual Storytelling For Your Brand or Content Marketing Strategy, by Following These 10 Simple Rules

Last week I told you about the biggest trends in web & graphic design for 2017. I feel that one in particular demands further discussion: Visual Storytelling.

Visual storytelling is simply the way most brands will decide to go in 2016 & beyond, as they try to tell their story to their customers.

Why? Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine… All these trendy social media sites are based on visuals.

“Facts bore, stories sell” is a common saying.

But I will go even further (and probably annoy some master storytellers), by saying:

“Stories in text bore, stories told visually engage — and sell”.

To drive home this point, and before I delve into the how-to, the numbers in this infographic should be more than enough:

Even if you don’t give too much credit to the stats I just threw at you, think about this. If you were to create a paid campaign for your product in Facebook, would you hit ‘Publish’ without including a single image in the ad?

I didn’t think so. So now, let’s see how to tell your story visually.

Sstorytelling happen with just about any kind of visuals. A short documentary, a 7-seconds Vine, a meme, a imely photograph… They all can tell your story.

But not all images in the world have the power of telling a story, and not all of them will work equally in different contexts.

In order to make storytelling work for your brand, I suggest following these 10 tried and true principles. You’ve seen them in full effect countless times, even if you didn’t notice.

In fact, whenever you watch a good movie, you’re being exposed to most, if not all of these rules. I will draw on examples from popular movies to explain how to use the 10 rules of visual storytelling:

1. Show, don’t tell

Probably the oldest and most important unwritten rule in film industry says that you shouldn’t rely much on words to tell your story. In fact, you should rely on them as less as possible.

Think of Charles Chaplin or Buster Keaton movies. Old, I know. And gosh, there are no dialogues!

But if you sit and watch for a couple of minutes, you understand everything that’s going on, don’t you?

It’s no coincidence that Buster Keaton and Charlot’s movies remain among the biggest classic movies of all time. In fact, not being able to rely on spoken word made them better storytellers. They fully understood and used the power of showing without words.

Even long after the silent film era, some movies still provide masterful examples of storytelling with precious few words. Take Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Steven Spielberg’s Duel, for instance.

How can you make this work for your brand?

Let’s put it this way: Talking a lot is boring, but talking a lot about yourself is even more boring.

So let the visuals do the talking. Show the benefits of your product, don’t tell people about them. If you can feature someone using your product and service, and having an easier life for it, that will do wonders for your marketing.

2. Context Is Everything

Now, if we’re going to use just a few words, we will need to use some shortcuts to better communicate with our audience. Those shortcuts are our context.

Picture this short scene: If we show a person and follow her with the camera for a while, everyone watching will assume that’s our protagonist, our hero. If this person enters an office building, dressed in a suit, and sits at a cubicle — everyone assumes this is her working place.

Note we don’t need words or lines or dialogue to make this point. We could have another character come and greet the hero, saying:

– Oh, good morning, co-worker, how are you today? Ready for doing some work in your working place?

But none of that is needed, in fact it would sound silly, because we have context. Context is what everybody assumes, based on what we show or hint at.

The great thing is, we can very easily play with our audience’s assumptions, and turn them upside down.

The Sixth Sense was famous for playing with context. Some characters weren’t what they seemed to be, and that’s what made it a great movie.

All the suspense thrillers that have a big plot twist at the end are playing with a special sort of context called conventions (what people have seen a thousand times before). Usual Suspects, anyone?

Context and, more particularly, hidden context, is the stuff that makes cinema lovers talk about the greatest movies for hours. If you want to take a look at some of the examples of hidden context in classic films, such as Blade Runner or The Searchers, don’t miss this article.

When it comes to brands, context can be the colors you choose, the fonts you use, your Instagram filters, or the very types of content you share with your followers. They all set the expectations of your audience, so choose them wisely.

Of course, different audiences come from different contexts. Your context will have to be different if you cater to baby boomers than if you cater to millenials. Or people in the US, versus people in China.

Takeaway for your brand storytelling: use context, and, even better, play with it.

People think that insurance agencies are boring? Turn that upside down.

You are a one-man show who handles all the jobs? Dismiss any scepticism by projecting an über professional image through your social media, portfolio, website, videos, etc.

3. Show People

In my previous example, it was easy to make assumptions because we were seeing a person going through her everyday life. If we were shown a lamp post, or bacteria, we would probably have a harder time trying to make assumptions about what we are seeing.

That’s because we relate better to other people, than to bacteria. And we certainly relate better to people than to a brand or business.

So don’t tell the story of your business, but the story of the people behind it. You, your employees, your customers.

Now, what kind of people can we better relate to? Going back to the concept of context, it will be easier to relate to someone if we are familiar with what he does or who he is.

Why is Marty McFly the hero in Back To the Future, instead of Doc?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not familiar with the nuclear physics involved in time travelling. I am, however, familiar with the everyday problems of a young man whose interests include playing guitar, skateboarding and video games.

Marty McFly is a hero that most people can relate to, as proved by the popularity of the Back To The Future saga.

Another way of integrating this into your storytelling is making yourself, or your brand, more approachable, more down to earth. That’s why world famous athletes or actors make a point of sharing everyday stuff via their Instagram account, and that’s why it works.

They want to be seen as real people, and so should you.

4. Be personal, be true

Now that you’re showing that there’s a person behind the brand, there’s something else you need to do:

Be YOU. Share something personal, unique.

Share your true story and you’ll be setting yourself apart from all the other brands out there. They can’t share that same story, because they are not you.

As a general rule, true stories are powerful, because they’re human; they happened to someone like you and me.

Take what happened to Spielberg when he directed Schindler’s List.

Spielberg had already directed some hugely successful movies, such as Jaws, ET and Raiders of The Lost Ark, but he was seen by many people as just a director of sci-fi or fantasy blockbusters, and he had never been awarded an Oscar.

When he chose to direct Schindler’s List, a true story about the Holocaust that he had been preparing to direct for ten years (Spielberg himself came from a Jewish family), all of this changed. He finally won the Oscar as Best Director. His movie won the Best Picture Oscar and is currently ranked #8 Greatest Movie of All Time by the American Film Institute.

So choosing to show your more personal side can a have a great effect on how others perceive you.

If there’s a company that’s perceived by most as being 100% technology, that’s Google. Its better know landmark is a search algorithm — there’s nothing more robotic and less human than that!

So in 2013, Google India shared a video about the true story of two Indian friends separated by the Partition of India in 1947, and how one of the friends’ granddaughter uses Google to reunite them.

Nevermind the video is in Indian language, you will understand the story, and quite possibly be touched by it:

5. Show conflict

Conflict is the force that drives a story. No conflict, no story.

Conflict happens whenever someone wants or needs something and must fight for it. This ‘something’ can be a lot of things: an object, love, survival, etc.

Conflict is or should be present in every film. Still, there are movies where the conflict overshadows everything else, like Jaws, or the previously mentioned Duel. Interestingly, both films are directed by Spielberg (by now you can tell I’m a big Spielberg fan, right?)

In these movies, conflict act as a ticking clock that needs to be stopped — so that tension or suspense run through the story as long as conflict is not resolved.

What matters to storytellers is that audiences won’t be interested in a story if there is no conflict. Conflict sparks interest.

If we take this to brand storytelling, customers won’t be interested in your story, if it isn’t relevant to a ‘conflict’ or problem they are struggling with.

Remember the Volvo viral ad with Jean-Claude Van Damme?

Here, Volvo send the message that their trucks are super smooth to drive, even on reverse. They could do this a thousand ways, but they do it in a pretty original manner, that includes some ‘awesome’ factor and, yes, conflict. When we realize what’s going on, we can’t help but wonder: Will Van Damme hurt himself?

So, much in the way of a circus show, they put someone “in danger”, only to come out triumphant and build on the public’s perception that Volvos are very safe cars. I think it’s brilliant.

One more thing : I’ve told you about using about color to help build context and communicate without words. In the same way, you can use contrast to add conflict to your visuals. Psychology tells us that each color conveys a different sensation or message. Brands have always used to their advantage in logos — storytelling is not different.

6. Reveal hidden things

One of the rules of a good story is to take the audience to a hidden place that they don’t get to see everyday.

Raiders of The Lost Ark, Lost World, The Jungle Book, Interstellar… Do these blockbuster movie titles tell you something?

Just by hearing the title, you already know that they are not going to be about a day at the office, right? They show a promise that they are going to take you to unexplored territory.

Good stories are always about people we can relate to, taken to extraordinary places or circumstances.

How can a brand or an online business use this to its advantage?

It’s really easy. Go behind the scenes, show your customers what they don’t normally see, but let those things be seen through your or your employees’ eyes (which takes us back to the #3 rule: put people at the front).

If there’s one rule in which visual storytelling really beats textual storytelling is this one. You can describe what it’s like to go behind the curtains, but nothing beats letting your customers actually see it.

Social media apps like Snapchat, Periscope or Instagram can be very powerful allies in this vital point of your content marketing strategy. Don’t understimate them.

7. Focus

Don’t get lost on the details. Do you know when people tell stories that seem to ramble forever and never lead to anything, boring the hell out of whoever’s listening?

A visual story is the same (if not worse). Too many details, and you lose your audience attention.

Look, people are busy and exposed to way too much information. So tell them where to focus, right and clear.

The structure of your picture is key for this. As good photographers know, the way you arrange things in your frame can speak volumes by itself.

You may have heard of the Rule of Thirds, applied to photography or film. The Rule of Thirds says that if you divide a screen into thirds using lines, the points where the lines cross are focus points that the eye is naturally attracted to.

Image: http://takeandtalkpics.com/fundamental-fridays-rule-of-thirds/

The four points created by the Rule of Thirds are also the center points of four quadrants we can divide our frame in. Each of these quadrants can be used to play a different role in the structure of the image.

Once you know how to use this grid or quadrant system, you can use it to give extra depth to the story you’re telling. Consider this short scene from Drive and watch the excellent explanation from Every Frame A Painting (a YouTube channel that is full of super useful advice on storytelling):

Director Nicolas Winding Refn uses one half of the frame to tell us a certain thing about the characters, and the other half to tell a different one.

Of course, Winding Refn is a master storyteller, but anyone can make use of this. Just remember:

  • You may use the structure of your visuals to tell the viewer what the most important elements of your image or story are
  • If you can tell something in ten seconds, don’t use a minute. If you can tell something in 5 seconds, don’t use ten.
  • KISSS (Keep It Short and Sweet, Stupid)

8. Keep Moving!

Stories flow. Your images needs to move. But that doesn’t mean that your image needs to be in fact a video or an animated GIF.

There are very boring videos that show no movement at all. Just think of the way a conference talk video used to be, before TED came along. There was no movement, just a still frame of a guy talking. TED changed this and took the world by storm.

On the other hand, some still images have movement. It’s in their inner structure (see rule #7).

Take this still frame from Little Miss Sunshine:

Or the historic “Raising The Flag on Iwo Jima” photo. They both have movement. The elements in these pictures tell our eyes to follow a certain direction and take a guess at what comes next.

Do the same and you’ll be able to insert two or more vignettes or small scenes in a single picture, if only in the mind of the viewer.

Stories need some sort of timeline, a sense of going from place A to place B. This is called story arc, or character arc (whenever a character undergoes a transformation), and the best way to depict this is with movement.

In storytelling, lack of movement equals lack of conflict. That is why talk videos (before TED) were usually boring.

Even if you choose a video format to tell your story, don’t get too confident and don’t stop moving!

Speed is a movie where movement is constant, as the heroes are riding a bus that can’t be stopped. Many other movies have this kind of non-stop movement embedded into them: The Taking of Pelham 123, the Airport! saga, etc.

No wonder that the big blockbuster movies are always action or adventure movies with a lot of explosions, running around and, well, movement.

Take that in mind and you’ll find it easier to engage your audience.

9. Don’t be obvious

We are exposed to hundreds of stories everyday, so the ones that stick are the ones that don’t follow the obvious path.

One of the famous Pixar rules of storytelling goes to great lengths to demonstrate you should avoid the obvious, in order to surprise and engage your audience:

Image: http://imgur.com/gallery/E8xe0

Take Memento: a mystery played in reverse to put the audience in the protagonist’s shoes (a guy that can’t make new memories). Or Dogville, a story that takes place in a small town where walls are transparent for us, the audience; a small town that’s, in fact, a big stage.

Both movies work because they present things in a way no one had before. They turn around some of the usual conventions of storytelling.

Surprising your audience is the ultimate way of engaging them. And engagement is the ultimate goal of content marketing, isn’t it?

So what better way to stand apart from all the others in the content marketing game than avoiding the obvious?

Be the one brand that always surprise its followers or customers. Use visuals, and storytelling, in a way no one else is doing. Your story, and your name, will stick.

10. Teach something

Carry a message. Give a lesson. Show or share a stance. Don’t be bland.

Every marketing effort carries a message, that of your brand or business.

Stories are the same. In fact, when humans started putting together stories, they did it to teach some important life lesson. Entertaining was just a means of teaching that lesson, not the ultimate goal of the story.

So if you really want your followers to listen to your story, you’d better teach something important for them.

The Lego Movie has been often cited as the ultimate example of brand marketing done right. And it’s extremely effective, not because it shows the product of the brand, but because it conveys a message, one that is in tune with the brand’s mission: everyone can build something.

It’s easy to underestimate cartoon movies, thinking they’re just there to entertain the kids. But it’s very often the case that they carry deep, important meanings, that can be applied both to kids and adults.

This is true from the first Disney classics, to the more modern Pixar movies.

It may seem that Finding Nemo is an adventure about a father doing everything possible to get his lost son back. But pay close attention and you’ll find that it’s really about learning to trust.

Storytelling is not the easiest way of marketing your brand. If you’re going to do it, first decide what you want to teach.

Come up with an entertaining way of doing it and you’ll be halfway through to telling your story. The other half is following the first nine rules.

Hungry for more? Don’t forget to check my epic compilation 17 Web & Graphic Design Trends To Watch in 2017. You need to be on the know!

Over To You

Feels overwhelming? Well, the only way of getting better at storytelling, is by -you guessed it- practice.

Maybe your first attempt at visual storytelling won’t be that great, but keep trying. Keep asking yourself whether your visual content tells a good story by following all the rules I’ve told you about, and I can guarantee that you’ll get better at it.

Of course, if you’re going to go this way you’ll have to invest a little in image creation. Everything I’ve outlined so far pretty much rules out using stock images. There are precious few opportunities in which a stock image is going to comply with all these rules and help you craft a story for your audience.

Even if it does, it won’t really be your story, or your story won’t be perceived as unique by your audience.

So tell me, do you think I missed any important guidelines required to build a compelling visual story? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Originally published at ernestoolivares.com on January 1, 2016.

Visual Stories

Inside stories and tips from an Infographic Design agency

Visual Stories

Inside stories and tips from an Infographic Design agency

Ernesto Olivares

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We transform complex data and information into clear and simple infographics

Visual Stories

Inside stories and tips from an Infographic Design agency