How to Choose Images in Visual Storytelling

Visual storytelling in marketing is an approach that’s being used and consumed more than ever before. When you tell a story visually, your script isn’t the only thing talking. It is important to consider how you choose images in visual storytelling. Your choices of imagery throughout your story set expectations for your audience and determine their level of engagement and retention. 

Let’s look at the most important elements of choosing imagery for your visual story.

The first and most important factor in image selection is knowing your audience.

How big is your audience?

Where will they consume your visual story?

What age group are they?

How diverse will they be in race, sex, religion, and language?  

With your audience in mind, start to think about images that fit the tone and subject matter of your visual story.

There are some images that should be almost universally avoided.

Graphic or explicit imagery will almost never go over well with audiences, no matter their demographic breakdown and no matter the subject matter of your story.

Even if your story includes mention of grim events or situations, try to choose images that can convey the gravity of your message without pushing your audience away. Think abstractly about unpleasant specifics, and brainstorm images that evoke difficult ideas without depicting them literally.  

A good example could come from a video about environmental damage. Think abstractly, and avoid images of unhealthy wildlife and trees. Consider using images like a group of encroaching bulldozers to represent environmental erosion instead. 

You’ll also want to avoid any imagery the audience is likely to read as lazy.  This applies primarily to stock imagery, cliché imagery, and poorly rendered imagery.

Stock imagery is inherently boring. The audience will not approve of your decision to copy and paste work you did not create.  

Cliché imagery is better than stock in that it’s self-made, but it’s still tired and uninspired. Poorly rendered imagery is at least unique and self-made, but the audience will see the lack of completion or effort and think of it as lazy.

So, there are audience considerations to plan for and some imagery best avoided.

What should you choose, then?

Choose images that are applicable to your audience’s background and interests, and meet them where they are.  

Use what you know about your audience to choose images that fit their lifestyle and tend to drive their attention. For an older audience watching a video about staying informed, visuals depicting an older person reading a newspaper might be perfect.  

Your audience can see themselves in the character, and the newspaper is a good image to represent the concept of staying informed for an older audience.

Choose imagery that lets audiences see themselves (or an appropriate stand-in or surrogate) and the lifestyle that they identify with.

These audience-focused choices will provide a visual language for most of your video. For your moments of revelation and transition, make choices that both acknowledge this visual language and signal the arrival of something new.

How will you change your choices of imagery for the key moments of your script?

At TruScribe, we think a lot about the principle of surprise. It’s a pillar of our guiding philosophy, Scribology, and research has shown that surprise is more than entertaining: it stimulates the production of dopamine in the brain, which tends to make the brain become (and stay) curious.

Surprise your audience with high-impact imagery during crucial moments.  Imagine you’ve stuck to relatable, straightforward imagery for the beginning of your “staying informed” video. Now it’s time to introduce your company’s new product for delivering the news.

Surprise them with a stretch into the fantastic.

Maybe the product falls to Earth like a superhero instead of arriving in a box. Or maybe the characters don’t just smile when they hold it—they look younger, to show the feeling of youth the product gives them.

Humor can be another great way to generate surprise.

With appropriate use of humor, you can keep your audience engaged and entertained. Of course, avoid humor when it would distract or clash with the tone. Don’t forget that it can work wonders for audience attention and retention when used well.

Shlomi Ron discusses a “target emotion” for each image in a strong visual story, and humor’s target emotion—positivity—is a great example of this.  

While few videos can exude positivity in every second of every frame, Ron points out that “Positive emotions along with surprise were found to result in massive shares”.

Ron’s article also gives some advice on how to handle the more difficult emotions. Surprise pairs well not only with positive emotion, but with “low-arousal” emotions like sadness, relaxation, and depression. “High-arousal” emotions like anxiety, anger, and excitement are best presented through unsurprising, negative content.  

So, if your script is discussing a point that you expect to anger or excite your audience, present it with imagery that won’t surprise your audience and resonates with negative content.

If you’re describing a legal loophole, for example,you may want people to get worked up about the problem. Choose imagery that they would expect, and don’t try to lighten the tone of the imagery.

If you want your audience to feel relaxed, choose an image that will create a surprising influx of relief.  Say your video is about gorilla habitat loss, and the script and visuals thus far have been fairly downbeat.  When your script turns to the solution that should help your audience relax, choose imagery that will surprise them as the tone changes.  Perhaps introduce several gorillas, living together happily because of your video’s solution.  

Finally, remember context.

Pola Zen reminds us that “…the context that surrounds the image defines the attitude that the viewer will have towards that image and the action he or she will take afterwards”.  Context means considering each image in relation to the video as a whole.  

Do any images clash, either with each other or the script? Hopefully not, as you ideally want to create an integrated story, where “the visual style should match the literary style of the story”. Are some so different than others that they stick out—and if so, was that your intention?  Viewing your images in the context of your visual story as a whole can ensure cohesion and consistency.

When choosing images in visual storytelling, the best approach is audience-focused and context-mindful.  Choose images that fit your audience’s lifestyle and interests to promote engagement. Avoid alienating imagery. Think about target emotions when deciding on imagery.  With a mindful approach, your images will support your message and make for powerful visual storytelling.