Visual storytelling: how to tell stories with videos

While some organizations seem to naturally lend themselves to communicating through visual storytelling, such as those in the sports,…

Visual storytelling
Elisabetta Severoni
Content Marketing Visual storytelling: how to tell stories with videos

While some organizations seem to naturally lend themselves to communicating through visual storytelling, such as those in the sports, entertainment, or science industries, many other seemingly less well-suited industries – insurance, financial services, healthcare, retail, B2B, to name a few – nonetheless benefit greatly from the possibilities offered by visual storytelling.

How is this possible? The fact is that visual storytelling, more than other modes of expression, can tell stories that resonate with audiences, capture their attention, and motivate their purchasing and consumption decisions, regardless of the communication objective or the industry in which the company operates. Stories truly have a universal dimension.

Video, in particular, takes full advantage of this irresistible, all-too-human attraction to stories – which has, as we shall see, a physiological basis – and continues to prove itself to be the most effective visual media.

What are we talking about when we talk about visual storytelling?

Let’s immediately clear the field of simplistic and incorrect definitions: visual storytelling is not a Facebook carousel, it’s not even a 1,200 word article with some key visual element nor even a well done video, thrown into the stormy sea of digital content without the compass of a strategic thought.

Instead, visual storytelling is a set of tactics available to marketers that uses the visual formats available to them to tell a story about a brand, company, or product.

Visual storytelling allows for a much more articulated discourse when it comes to conveying a commercial proposal: it is a story told through images that inserts the description of the characteristics and benefits of a product or service within a true parallel universe. By virtue of this narrative dimension, visual storytelling introduces the spectator to a world full of possibilities. It is engaging, powerful, and effective.

For centuries, a crucial element of marketing

Let’s provide some coordinates to orient ourselves within a microcosm, that of visual storytelling, which has also become a buzzword, among the most widespread, used, and misunderstood. And it couldn’t be otherwise: visual storytelling is enjoying incredible success (for some years now, enhanced by the opportunities offered by digital tools), so much so that we believe it was born in contemporary times or that, at most, it is a consequence of the upheavals of the modern age.

Instead, video is a mode of expression that has existed since ancient times. From caveman drawings that were used to warn of potential threats from other tribes, to silent films that, for the first time, transported audiences into new and powerful sensory experiences, we have been using visual storytelling as a means to educate, engage, and motivate audiences since time immemorial.

Well before those famous posters produced during the Belle Époque – and the dazzling neon lights – the cities lit up by luminous signs – companies that produced and sold consumer goods had to be creative in order to successfully advertise their activity.

Already in ancient Rome, stores selling wine used to hang vines outside their doors as a tribute to the god Bacchus. The goal was to attract customers by promising them a place of refreshment – and therefore an experience before a product – and a good glass of wine.

Visual storytelling – the transmission of information through a relatively simple visual medium – was a crucial element of “marketing” even then .

With a largely illiterate population, wall paintings, signs carved on the walls of buildings, on stone, on terracotta – “graphics” as we would say now – were for thousands of years the logical, immediate, and effective alternative.

And so… what has changed?

And today? What separates us from the writings painted on the walls of the houses of Pompeii or – let’s take a mighty leap in time – from the most iconic commercials of the 1980s, artfully programmed to interrupt the flow of television programming? Now, as then, it would seem, we want (and believe) what we see.

The answer cannot be reduced to a laconic “everything changes so that nothing changes”. The answer must necessarily be complex, because the historical, economic and cultural context in which we are immersed is complex.

We live, as the French scholar Régis Debray writes,in a historical period characterized by the massive and widespread presence of screens (video-sphere). Ours is also an era in which the consumer has access to tools that are designed to allow relationships with advanced interactivity. The spread of smartphones, tablets, and other devices, which allows for mobile viewing, has imposed an increasingly fluid and cross-cutting nature on content, since it must be experienced while on the move, outside the home, often when other activities are in progress.

Visual storytelling is, therefore, not new in and of itself. However, the systemic conditions of our reality have determined modes realizing storytelling through images that are so innovative as to represent a moment of discontinuity in the long history of marketing.

Perhaps, if anything has changed, it is the ability of visual storytelling to actually impact consumer decisions, smoothly routing them along their path to purchase.

Video is the visual storytelling tool that, more than others (e.g. infographics, gifs, static images), is able to enhance the touchpoints scattered along the funnel, allowing people to vicariously live the experience shown on the screen, in a virtual way, of course, but no less authentic. And so the gap to take action is reduced, because it is preceded, justified, and motivated by what we have just experienced.

We are made of the same substance as the stories

In the case of video, we are pulled in by a combination of factors: from the scale and angle of the shots to the soundtrack, from the visualization of the narrative arc of the characters, to the emotional experience that is visually prescribed in the story. Narrative content is immediately recognizable to us and it comes into contact with our belief and value systems.

The resulting emotional connection is not simply the result of external elements but has a biological basis: we are all programmed – each in his or her own way – to have the same physiological responses to the stories we hear, read, and watch.

As Lisa Cron writes in her Story or Die:

What I’ve learned has astounded me: what grabs me, compels my interest, and drives me to continue reading has little to do with plot, writing, outside drama, or beautiful prose. What fascinates me is the way the events affect the protagonist’s belief system, causing it to change over the course of the story. But why? And how? I found the answer by digging into the neuroscience associated with stories, in its intersection with the fields of cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology: the science that accounts for why stories already exist, embedded in the architecture of our brains. It’s why a compelling story can change the way we see things (whether we’re aware of it or not), and it’s why stories are the most powerful and transformative communication tool we have.

Telling a compelling story through video triggers a mechanism at a biological level: it activates a sequence of three closely connected elements that, by insisting on specific neurotransmitters, obtain the amazing result of projecting us into the fictional universe.

  1. Story element: surprise. The protagonist expects one thing to happen and instead another happens. The familiar pattern is suddenly interrupted; now what? Biological reaction: dopamine. The neurotransmitter of curiosity increases, triggering our desire to find out what will happen next.
  2. Story element: conflict. The protagonist has no choice but to make a difficult decision. Consequences, possibly negative, will ensue. Biological reaction: cortisol. The stress hormone rises, and suspense and tension increase….
  3. Story element: vulnerability. We empathize with the protagonist. We hope he makes it. Biological reaction: oxytocin. The neurotransmitter of empathy increases, and we feel an even stronger interest. We’re on the protagonist’s side, rooting for him.

“Narratives that make us pay attention and also involve us emotionally are stories that drive us to action,” says Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist specializing in brain imaging. “That’s why stories influence behavior after they have ended: because we have now settled into the narrative.”

Visual storytelling: a formidable weapon for marketers

The most forward-thinking companies have been exploiting our physiological predisposition to be captured by visual stories for years. Marketers and communication professionals in particular systematically use video, integrating it into their content storytelling strategies and modifying it in terms of both format and channels to be used.

There are now many examples of success stories: never before has telling stories through video contributed to achieving a series of strategically crucial objectives for the company. From communicating the quality of a product or service, to building and promoting your brand identity, to starting and consolidating a conversation with your leads or customers.

Thanks to visual storytelling, companies, invested by the technological transformation and grappling with a new type of consumer that is more aware and digitally savvy, can improve the relationship with their audience:

  • channeling the viewer’s emotional involvement,
  • making the viewer feel fully invested with an urgency to understand,
  • by motivating the viewer to act by having a more complete, multifaceted, and in-depth understanding of the messages.

How to use video to tell stories?

During their Visual Storytelling at its Best talk at CMWorld 2019, Eric Goodstadt and Sacha Reeb spoke at length about their experience as content creators. Among the topics that they addressed to an audience of communications professionals from a wide variety of fields, the first was perhaps the most interesting, and surprising.

“To produce an experience that is relevant to the viewer-consumer, we have to start thinking about it from the end and then work our way backwards.”

Let’s start at the end!

What Goodstadt and Reeb meant by this statement is that it’s good practice to avoid starting right away, spear in hand, to build content.

Rather, the first step is to decide what you want the people in your audience to do once they’ve completed the visual storytelling experience designed for them. You must then first answer these questions: Do you want your viewers to be more informed about the topic you’re conveying? Do you want them to request a demo? Or do you want them to buy your product, whatever it is?

So here’s the number-one rule for storytelling through video: always start with a clear, concise, and realistic communication objective.

From the verbal to a more immersive experience

The reality is that we live in an extremely noisy world – 500 hours of videos uploaded to YouTube every minute, more than 2 million articles and 4.6 billion pieces of content produced every day – and limiting this boundless and chaotic mass of words is perhaps the only way to be able to offer an experience that can stand out in the overwhelming flow of daily information.

Visual storytelling is able to capture the viewer and hold his attention for longer because it diverts his limited resources of attention from the verbal level, which tends to be experienced exclusively, to different expressive modes at the same time (moving images, words, sounds, music). The degree of involvement, thanks to an experience that is perceived as more immersive, increases considerably.

How to use the potential embedded in video storytelling within companies’ strategies? Hbow to turn video into an exceptional marketing tool?

Harnessing the potential of visual storytelling: some tips

To build videos that channel the potential of a story, there are different approaches and different techniques. Fortunately, there are also some constants. Let’s start with these.

  • Identify your goal and target audience.
  • Create your story. Best to rely on those who do this job for a living. A solid script is essential so that the video’s plot is clear and the characters are well-defined and memorable.
  • Choose the video format (animated, live actors, special effects). This decision depends largely on your budget and time available.
  • Decide whether to organize a production team in-house or hire an outside production studio.
  • Create a communication strategy to promote your video. Social media coverage, launching on company websites and blogs, creating ad hoc landing pages, press releases and events… make sure that the video has the space and channels for a widespread, timely, and balanced distribution.

Stories in video: consistent, memorable, enjoyable to watch

  1. Create a strong, consistent narrative structure. Make it easy for your viewers to follow the story by renewing their interest with studied twists and taking them through the story arc to the finale.
  2. Make your characters recognizable. People should be able to recognize themselves in the dynamics of the story and the characters’ behaviors. That’s why using polarizing characters, while undoubtedly a lot of fun, could backfire and end up alienating the very segments of the audience you want your message to reach.
  3. Sacrifice parts of the video that risk undermining the success of the narrative. If there are aspects of the video that aren’t functional to the communication goal (and therefore the business goals), eliminate them. To make these often painful cuts, it can help to ask for feedback from third parties, perhaps people in an ideal audience who match the personas identified in the research phase of the project.
  4. And finally, even if it may seem superfluous to remember, create a video that is first of all enjoyable to watch: A visually curated product, built with attention to detail, with a visual concept consistent with the topic and tone-of-voice is an indication of your desire to entertain the people in your audience: your prospects, leads, and customers.

Through video, visual storytelling tells brand stories with greater strength and accuracy, which is why it’s essential, and it holds a position of absolute prominence among the tools chosen by marketers today.

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