Visual storytelling is a crucial and fascinating practice. It adds engagement and retention to messages, in a myriad of contexts. In business, its usefulness is only growing—but marketers aren’t the only ones who use visual storytelling.
Here, we’re going to look at some of the biggest news stories of the last three years, and examine how visual storytelling drove our interest and retention of those stories.
“I am a straight shooter”
Let’s start in 2017 with an example of a wacky story that might’ve slipped into obscurity without the image that defined it. On July 27, 2017, then-White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci called Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. Their conversation was a bizarre, free-wheeling trek through Scaramucci’s psyche. Scaramucci’s profane, paranoid, and erratic conversation would, in a few short days, result in his removal from his position. His last words about the call, a few hours later: “I am a straight shooter.”
The article was paired with this image. Ignore the language of the article (it’s far from polite) and simply absorb the picture: Scaramucci, arms outstretched like a conductor, mouth curved to prepare for another verbal avalanche, mirrored sunglasses covering his eyes like a highway police officer.
Why does this image tell us so much more about Scaramucci than he could?
Simply put, the photographer took a ‘real’ photo of him.
For all his bluster and certainty, when tightly framed, this is just a normal guy trying to look cool.
The glasses, the pose, the reporters looking for a comment—Scaramucci thinks this looks great.
The reporters create an image density that makes him look small, even when he matches their height.
The framing almost represents what Scaramucci’s thinking, while the image density reveals what the world knows. This is a man surrounded, outgunned. It’s a man who doesn’t realize he’s already terminated his career with hubris and immaturity.
Power on Display
Let’s move forward to 2018, and this still of Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress. Required to testify to a major privacy scandal involving his company, Facebook, Zuckerberg was in a rare position here: he was in a room filled with men and women who held more power than him. For once, the man with a net worth of almost $83 billion dollars was not in control.
America knew what was happening, but it took a visual story like this one to truly make the moment real. Look at Zuckerberg, alone at a mostly empty table. Like in Scaramucci’s photo, the image density works against him—contrast the crowd of onlookers with Zuckerberg, alone with his notebook and water. Against the actual government, Zuckerberg doesn’t have millions of friends.
He just has an average suit and a notebook.
There’s also a subtler approach to framing in play: the angle. We’re looking down on Zuckerberg, like we’re the government, or at least a higher body of judgment. This is not framing that makes us relate to Zuckerberg; it’s framing that makes him small and targeted. Against the actual government (or, if you like, the people), Zuckerberg doesn’t have millions of friends, and his money won’t argue for him.
Unity of a Crowd
2019 brought us an image from a major story that couldn’t be more different. Here we see Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, then 16, speaking into a megaphone to a crowd surrounding her. Her body language projects confidence and comfort, the crowd is zeroed in on her—phones record her speech, people crane their necks to see, and one holds a banner even while she records.
It’s basically the opposite of the Zuckerberg shot: there’s nothing adversarial and nothing solitary about the image of Thunberg. She’s the lone speaker, yes, but she’s surrounded by a supportive movement. The densely packed image is a show of unity, not a threat. She’s in her comfort zone, not out of it, and she her face shows that she knows it—just as much as Zuckerberg’s face told us that he knew he was out of his depth.
Strength on Display
In 2020, images like this one help us understand—and maybe even help us believe—the pandemic’s numerous, unpredictable changes to American life. Here, we see an Arizona protest in action, with an anti-stay-at-home protestor standing barely a foot from a uniformed nurse in a face-mask. He’s swinging an American flag, extremely close to her body. Her arms are crossed and eyes narrowed, projecting her strength and refusal to move silently and clearly.
Here, the principle of human forms—that we’re wired to seek and follow in any frame—is paramount. This image mattered because we know what those expressions mean. The protestor’s waving arms, directly in front of the nurse, are a highly personal, nearly-physical expression of anger. The nurse’s stance is closed, unmoving, and her eyes project a different kind of anger—collected, focused anger.
Making the image even more striking is the protestor’s implement; he’s very close to turning our country’s flag into a weapon. This is why it’s so important to choose the right images in your visual story: the visual story this protestor created makes us very uncomfortable. The narrative here is a man trying to force a woman to submit, using the American flag… a bad look, made worse by the fact that this isn’t wartime, and she’s an American healthcare professional. The dissonance is ugly, and it’s extremely difficult to view him as the party in the right.
Visuals Drive Home the News
When we’re told of a shocking, disturbing, exciting, or uplifting news story, we react to it emotionally, remember some of the key points, and move on. When those stories are transformed by imagery into a visual narrative, however, we don’t just move on. We retain their messages and, years later, describe them as a window into the zeitgeist.
The right visual story can tell the truth about a complex moment in seconds. Anthony Scaramucci’s bluster and bravado is hard to believe when we’re looking at an average man trying to strike a powerful pose while surrounded by hostile reporters. Mark Zuckerberg might seem all-powerful, but in the chambers of an unimpressed Congress, he’s small, alone, and uncomfortable.
Greta Thunberg’s youth and size seem irrelevant when compared to the number and excitement of her followers. And a protestor’s attempt to intimidate a nurse in the name of ‘freedom’ becomes little more than an act of bullying when captured by a skilled photographer’s lens.
Visuals drive our news cycles, and they drive our understanding of events for years to come. These examples are just recent ones; think back a couple of decades, and you’ll surely come up with dozens more great visual stories that captured the essence of the moment. From the moon landing to Truman victoriously waving the newspaper that said he lost, visual stories cut through politics and preference, and create lasting understanding of the messages of eras and movements.