“We now live in a world where information is potentially unlimited. Information is cheap, but meaning is expensive. Where is the meaning? Only human beings can tell you where it is. We’re extracting meaning from our minds and our own lives.”
The science historian and futurist George Dyson made this insightful observation back in 2011, but his words could not be more true today. In a world inundated with information and big data, the task at hand for editors, graphic artists, illustrators, programmers and journalists is not to create more information, but to make sense of what’s already out there.
And this is where visual storytelling comes into the picture. A combination of two powerful concepts–visual content and storytelling–visual storytelling is the next big thing in every field related to communication, from content marketing and graphic design to data journalism and digital media.
To illustrate the enormous power of these two concepts combined, let’s tackle each individually.
Visual content is by far the most effective medium of communication on the Internet today. Whether it comes in the form of stunning images, captivating video, or colorful infographics, visual content is the new king of the digital world.
The numbers also attest to this. According to statistics from November of last year, image-based social media platforms such as Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram grew exponentially, outpacing traditionally text-based platforms many times over (see graph above).
The reason for this is simple, even though the name for it may sound complex. It’s called the Picture Superiority Effect, and it simply refers to the fact that concepts are much more likely to be remembered if they are presented in visual form rather than as words.
But visual content on its own cannot move audiences to take a certain action. You need stories to do that. This is why storytelling is such an important ingredient in the visual content marketing mix.
Defined simply as the act of narrating a sequence of events that are causally connected, storytelling is at the heart of what makes human beings capable of extracting meaning from seemingly incongruous and unrelated data. In fact, cognitive scientists believe that the human mind innately processes and stores incoming information in the form of stories.
To see for yourself how the human mind makes sense of information by creating stories, read the following three sentences:
He went to the store
Sharon went hungry and wept.
After reading this, did you assume that “he” in the first sentence referred to “Fred” in the second sentence? Did you somehow connect Sharon with Fred and conclude that she wept because Fred died? Did you also assume that Fred went to a grocery store to get something for Sharon to eat?
This short exercise from Kendall Haven’s book Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story reveals how the brain, by default, creates stories from a series of events even if they are unrelated. According to psychologist Jerome Bruner, the human mind uses narratives to give shape to events in the real world and then perceives them as reality.
“Why do we use story as the form for telling about what happens in life and in our own lives? Because, most often, life follows story form and format. We use it because it usually works. Because it usually works, we have learned to rely on it as our primary mental model,” he writes.
Another reason stories are preferred by the human mind is that they bring order to the events we perceive around us. Because the human mind is always demanding meaning, whether consciously or unconsciously, it goes so far as to create, and even invent, connections between events by using basic story elements such as cause-and-effect sequencing, common themes and character analysis. What’s more, if the mind cannot create an orderly narrative from incoming information, it tends to ignore it.
To say the least, stories are powerful. When combined with visual content, they can send a message, incite emotions and move to action more effectively than any other form of communication out there.
Now that we’ve explored the reasons behind why visual storytelling surpasses all other content forms, let’s take a look now at the trends that are shaping its future.
In a previous post, we noted the growing popularity of the unique hybrid form of interactive stories. A seamless integration of a variety of mediums–from the written word and still images to interactive graphs, maps and animations–the interactive story is paving the way for new forms of transmedia storytelling in our convergence culture. These highly versatile formats are singular in their ability to give the user the freedom to navigate information, choose possible narrative paths and delve as deep as they desire into a certain topic.
While these highly interactive stories require more time and resources to produce, they also have a longer lifespan than your average piece of content. These interactive stories, for example, are still being viewed years after they were first posted.
As it becomes less time-consuming and expensive to produce these types of stories, more and more companies will start to resort to this innovative storytelling format, such as CUNA Brokerage Services did with this interactive module.
Larger corporations such as American Express are crafting game-like experiences in which users can explore scenes with a 360-degree view. This interactive musical experience starring Taylor Swift, for example, features dozens of rooms, scenes, characters, objects and intertwined storylines waiting to be discovered by users.
No longer the sole terrain of media giants such as The New York Times and The Guardian, interactive storytelling is going to continue to be the center of attention of corporations and organizations in the coming years.
News and media giants such as Facebook and The New York Times are already making hefty investments in virtual reality technology. Meanwhile, SXSW Interactive, a conference for interactive technology trendsetters, predicts 2016 will be the year in which virtual and augmented reality will explode.
While it still may take a few years for VR technology to go truly mainstream, early adopters will quickly set the stage for surging interest among the rest of the population by the end of the year when Facebook and Samsung release Gear VR, a new virtual reality headset.
The Des Moines Register, for example, is already making waves in the news storytelling world by releasing their first interactive story designed specifically to be used with the Oculus VR headset. Featuring a 360-degree view of a farm in Iowa, this immersive story allows the viewer to explore this virtual reproduction of a field by walking and looking around, as they would if they were physically present.
Virtual reality presents exciting opportunities for storytelling. Besides being able to have out-of-body and fly-on-the-wall experiences, users will also be able to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. By immersing viewers in experiences they would never have in real life–as is done in this made for VR story of a face-to-face encounter with opposing enemies in a war–people will be able to feel first-hand what it’s like to be someone else.
The World Economic Forum, for example, is already using VR technology to craft an immersive story of what it’s like to be a Syrian refugee. Called Project Syria, the story draws elements from actual audio, video and images taken on scene.
Known also as the “Network of Everything,” the Internet of Things is the network of physical objects embedded with electronics, software and sensors to allow them to be sensed and controlled remotely across a network infrastructure. This has huge implications as it will allow the direct integration of physical objects and computer-based systems. But what does this mean for visual storytelling?
According to experience designer Lance Weiler, wherever technology has gone, storytelling has followed. As the Internet of Things develops, it will provide the possibility of creating a story layer over the real world by allowing real objects and physical locations to become extensions of a fictional narrative. He also foresees that “experience designers” will soon become the “film directors of the 21st century.”
He is already living this prediction out by producing interactive documentaries such as Bear71. Incorporating everything from facial detection software and motion sensors to wireless trail cams and augmented reality, this groundbreaking film allows viewers to become animals who are tracked within the fictional world of the film.
Since March, companies and media organizations have been warming up to two new live-streaming apps: Periscope and Meerkat. Although streaming live video is nothing new, the new apps enhance social media storytelling by linking the live stream to a Twitter or Facebook account and allowing thousands of followers to view it in real time.
Fast food company Wendy’s, for example, used the apps in June to feature the comedy duo Rhett & Link. As they chatted with Periscope viewers, more than 4,400 people visited the company’s website. In June, Frito Lay also streamed a game show that allowed viewers to win prizes, while advertising a new product to more than 15,000 viewers.
Wearables such as Google Glass and the Apple Watch are also revolutionizing the way storytellling is done. Groundbreaking in its ability to gather stories from a mobile, first-person point-of-view and include any number of people in the storytelling process, Google Glass has already been used by citizen journalists to record and document arrests. It has also been used by a former TV journalist to tour the U.S. and tell the stories of disabled veterans in a way that has never been done before (see video above).
The device can also be used to create what’s called augmented storytelling. An augmented mystery story, for example, might have a commentator feeding information to one viewer, such as “Character A is lying because of X reason,” while a second viewer might be watching the same show but receiving different feedback from the commentator. In the end, the two can compare their experiences of the mystery and then compare conclusions.
Meanwhile, the Apple Watch allows you to gather biometric data to tell an unconventional story. For example, an out-of-the-box story about an exciting day may include heart rate data collected with the Apple Watch, which is then visualized using an interactive graph, chart or infographic.
A good story has the power to convince and convert. Start telling stunning visual stories in the form of infographics, presentations and other visual content with the click of a button. Access 100+ beautiful templates, 100+ free fonts and millions of images and icons right now.