10 Visual Storytelling Rules Every Digital Marketer Needs to Know

Visual-Storytelling-Rules-2-First Impressions-Are-Everything

Long ago, storytellers were wise old men and women who conveyed tales of the ancients and lessons learned through the ages. Later, stories were told by authors, playwrights and directors. But thanks to technology, anyone can now become a storyteller, a reporter and a publisher.

Visual storytelling, in particular, has emerged as an important trend in web and graphic design, as well as other forms of marketing in the digital era – and for good reason. The visual cortex is the largest section of the human brain. According to a 2008 study, the average person remembers about 10 percent of what they hear when tested 72 hours later. But when visuals are added into the mix, the figure increases to 65 percent.

Visuals are also more effective than text at evoking emotion and inspiring audiences to take action – both useful marketing tools. Think about it: Which type of advertisement is more likely to grab and retain your attention: radio or television?

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Sure, there are always exceptions to the rule, but any seeing person would agree that visual ads get more attention. The same concept now applies in the digital world. Pinterest, Shapchat, Instagram, Vine. Each of the popular social media sites is built around visuals. Even Facebook and Twitter posts with graphics and video are liked and shared more frequently than text alone.

While visual storytelling is only going to grow in importance as our world moves toward a digital universe, there are still best practices to ensure a story is effective. Sure, anyone can grab a camera or use software to create compelling images, but in order for those images to truly grab hold of viewers’ attention and incite them to take action, certain strategies are essential. The following are 10 visual storytelling rules every digital marketer needs to know:

RELATED: 10 Types of Visual Content Your Company Should Be Creating

1 Show Don’t Tell

show don't tell visual storytelling rule

It’s the first lesson in any creative writing, filmmaking or journalism class. Don’t tell your audience something if you can make them see it, be that through descriptive text or vivid images. The same can be said of visual storytelling in the digital world.

Which do you think is more effective: A video of a person telling you drugs are bad, or an image of an egg frying in a pan with the spoken statement, “This is your brain on drugs?” The difference can be explained by the concept, “show don’t tell.”

When presenting a product, don’t tell potential customers how it works if you can show the item in use. Before you even finalize the dialogue for a video or the text accompanying a still image, imagine an old silent film from the pre-talkie era. What if you could only convey your message through visuals? How would Charlie Chaplin present the information? The answer is the magic of visual storytelling.

2 First Impressions Are Everything

As in most aspects of life, when it comes to visual storytelling, first impressions matter. And there’s science to back up the assertion. The human brain is programmed to make a quick impression. As our species evolved, those who reacted quickly to the first sign of danger survived the longest. Thus, our psyches learned to form instinctive impressions based on our most deeply-rooted values, knowledge and beliefs.

In today’s digital world, however, a first impression must also be a quick impression. If the audience gets the wrong idea or is bored in the first few seconds of viewing an image, chances are it will just move on. Therefore, when crafting a visual story, invest heavily in the first image the audience sees. If the presentation looks sub-par or unprofessional, it only takes viewers a fraction of a second to deem a product cheap or unworthy.

The first picture an audience sees in a visual story should not only “hook” viewers and grab their attention, but also communicate the appropriate impression. Should your message inspire emotions of fear or feelings of safety, for example? Most audiences will react differently to an image of snarling guard dog then they react to a cuddly puppy. Even though both are images of dogs, each will inspire a vastly different first impression of the story to follow.

3 Make Your Story Move

Make-your-story-move visual storytelling rule

The best stories flow smoothly from beginning to middle to end. Images in a visual story need to move, as well. But that doesn’t mean the image needs to be a video – or even an animated GIF. A video can lack movement just as much as a standalone photo.

Just as a recording of a college professor speaking in front of a lecture hall can lack movement, a still photo can portray motion with eye-catching images and angles that cause eyes to move from one place to the next. Likewise, even footage of a building or a mountain can “move” by strategically panning the camera and zooming in or out on the subject.

More digital marketers are now adding movement to their visual stories by adding special effects, using software and online resources such as Visme to animate their images. Without movement, the visual brain quickly grows bored, but by varying angle and distance, as well as by adding digital effects, an image can capture viewers’ attention much longer – even if the subject remains the same. Audiences are most likely to follow a visual story until the end if the images they see flow from beginning to end, both in overall construction and through the use of a story arc.

RELATED: 5 Visual Storytelling Trends to Watch Out For

4 Follow an Arc

As mentioned above, every good story has a beginning, a middle and an end, the path through which is known as the narrative arc. A presentation that remains flat, such as a random sequence of facts or images, isn’t a story. The storyteller’s arc was first discussed thousands of years ago by Aristotle, who described the concept as the story’s timeline, the path through which a character or plot travels from point A to point B. Modern professional storytellers, also known as Hollywood directors, have committed to the pattern since the glory days of silent movies.


Think of the story arc as a journey. The beginning exposition describes the scene. Think of it as the story’s who, what and where. Then an incident happens – the why and how of the story – that causes the action to rise toward the story’s peak, often plagued by obstacles or complications. Once at the top, audiences should see something that makes the climb worthwhile.

The climax – which can fall in the middle of the story or closer to the end – is the peak of the arc and occurs when the subject reaches a reversal of fortune or a revelation. For example, a character on a quest reaches his destination, a battle is won or the truth is revealed.

As the action of the story arc falls toward its conclusion, audiences learn the results of the climax. What happened after the subject’s change in fortune or revelation? Sometimes the falling action will even include a moment of suspense, one that puts the final outcome in doubt. The end of the story arc includes the final resolution of the subject’s journey, and it wraps up any loose ends.


Even single-image visual stories should follow some sort of arc, simply one with a shorter cycle. For example, a standalone graphic can illustrate the passage of time or space, or it might show relationships between multiple parts. The longer the story, however, the more important the use of the arc to organize and map the message.

When choosing imagery and creating graphics for a visual story, it’s vital to keep each part of the arc in mind and choose images that impress a correlating mood on the audience. For example, images used as the action rises often inspire feelings of excitement or suspense within an audience. Meanwhile, a closing image often gives audiences hope, or it could instead convey a sense of hopelessness, dependent on the story’s ultimate purpose.Engage your audience with powerful visual stories.Try It for Free

5 Conflict Equals Story

Without some sort of conflict, or an obstacle to overcome, there is no story. Think about it: Boy walks from home to school. Nothing happens along the way. There was definitely a journey, but no story.

Conflict happens when someone wants or needs something, whether it’s the desire to possess an object, earn the love or another or even fight for survival. As the boy walks to school, he might be chased by a dog, ask the mailman to deliver a secret letter or just find himself caught out in the rain. Then he’s part of a story.

In marketing stories, conflict explains why the product is relevant to the audience. What “problem” does it solve? What makes it interesting to a customer? The climax of the story is then the solution: the product or service being sold. The story’s resolution then becomes the campaign’s call to action.

6 People Love People


People relate better to other people than inanimate objects or ideas. So don’t tell the story of a business or a product, but the people behind it: you, your customers and your employees. Don’t just highlight any type of people, either. Audiences relate best to the familiar, so represent people with similar backgrounds to your target viewer.

Think about the heroes in your favorite movies. With a few exceptions, they tend to be the Everyman, the Average Joe who just happens to find himself in extraordinary circumstances. Would we find Superman nearly as appealing if he wasn’t also Clark Kent?

When telling stories about relatable people, you foster a sense of trust between the audience and your brand or message. The best filmmakers know that to truly make an audience trust a character, it’s important to focus on the subject’s eyes, because from birth humans are wired to gain information by looking into others’ eyes. Therefore, eyes are critical to building an effective story, whether the medium is film, photography or animation.

Facial expressions can also help a story reach a global audience. They are universally understood, after all. A smiling face will be interpreted the same way in Beijing, Brussels and Boston.

7 Teach the Audience


Want your visual story to stand apart from the endless stream of media audiences are exposed to every day? Don’t be bland. Instead, take a stance, carry a profound message or give a lesson. Make your audience think.

Stories have been designed to teach lessons since the earliest days of human history. Why have tales such as Aesop’s Fables survived the test of time? The unique twists on memorable life lessons take root in the brains of all who read them.

Visual storytelling is such an effective teaching technique, in fact, that the method is frequently used as a teaching tool in classrooms around the world. Teachers find they can often use visual media to engage students otherwise distracted in the digitized world. Where slide shows of the past might put students to sleep, animated presentations and interactive media are exciting ways to present lessons.

8 Include Eye-Catchers and Eye Candy


Senses yearn stimulation. Effective images are not only pleasing to the eye, they stimulate all the senses. Including the right images in a visual story can make audiences feel warmth, nostalgia or apprehension, or cause them to vividly recall smells, sounds and tastes.

A strong image can sometimes tell its own story. Other images have the “wow” factor – they immediately catch viewers’ attention. And some images are so captivating they inspire audiences’ imagination as they remind them of hopes and dreams. A good visual storyteller will keep all of these qualities in mind when distinguishing the strong images from the ordinary.Create beautiful visual content with this easy-to-use tool.Try It for Free

9 Hold Your Focus


While the best visual storytellers are cognizant of the most striking images, they also know the most important element is the message, so don’t get lost in the details. Short and sweet is best. Audiences are already exposed to an endless stream of visuals and information, and you’ll quickly lose their attention if you bombard them with too many details.

Visual storytellers can help their audience retain its focus by structuring images to emphasize the most important elements of the story. Likewise, when determining the length of a visual story, keep it to the minimum necessary to communicate the message. Don’t ramble on with unneeded details just to turn a 30-second story into a minute. If you can say it in five seconds, don’t take 10.

10 The Hitchcock Rule


One of the great masters of visual storytelling, Alfred Hitchcock mastered the precision of illustrating a message. Many of his filmmaking techniques have become essential parts of modern cinematic language, and their simplicity can be applied by even the most amateur of visual storytellers. One of those methods is known simply as “Hitchcock’s Rule.”

According to Hitchcock’s rule, the size of any object in your frame should be proportional to its importance to the story at that moment. In other words, emphasize images that are pertinent to the story. Sure, close-up shots can help provide movement, and they can capture an audience’s interest. But if they’re not also serving the story, they detract from the story’s focus.

Hitchcock’s Rule can guide a visual storyteller toward the most efficient and effective images. If you first understand your story and its individual elements, the Hitchcock Rule can help you tell it efficiently in a way the audience will connect to and understand.

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