Using Visual Storytelling for Training

visual storytelling

We use visual storytelling for many different business needs, from enhancing marketing initiatives through the sales cycle and beyond.  Telling stories through the power of imagery is a great way to strengthen a message and drive engagement in your audience.  In this piece, we look at how visual storytelling can transform your organization’s training programs, and some of the most successful ways to use the approach in this context.

Asha Pandey’s piece for eLearning Industry gets straight to the heart of why storytelling is more effective than other approaches for training.  Quoting scholar Jonathan Gottschall, she writes that “Humans simply aren’t moved to action by ‘data dumps,’ dense PowerPoint slides, or spreadsheets packed with figures.  People are moved by emotion.”

Though this idea is simple, it seems to escape us over and over again in training efforts and throughout business initiatives.  Too often, learners are confronted with the exact kinds of PowerPoint slides and numerical data that Gottschall writes against.  Visual storytelling is a better way, and it’s not even necessarily more difficult to create.

Stories, Pandey continues, are “easy to remember, and appeal to learners of all profiles.  Their usage can simplify a complex subject.  They can be used effectively to bring in change.”  Of course, Pandey is speaking of storytelling for training generally, but we can and should extrapolate her thoughts to visual storytelling.

When a story is told visually, the message becomes even more understandable and retainable to your audience.  Speaking of a Power of Story training course given in Washington D.C., Park Howell notes that “We had to be very visual in our presentation, because I was in front of over 3,500 distributors from more than 140 countries.”  We don’t all speak the same language, but we do all connect with well-deployed visuals.

Not convinced that this is what Howell meant?  He goes on: “Even though it was translated in 10 languages simultaneously, much of the meaning in one’s words can get lost in, well, translation.”  The kinds of things that can disrupt understanding between two people who are speaking the same language (dialect, jargon, buzzwords, etc.) are not problems in visual storytelling.  There’s no ‘visual slang’ to get lost in; a tree is, recognizably, a tree, for example, and equally comprehensible whether you’re from London, Chicago, or Mumbai. 

A commitment to visual storytelling in training is an expression of welcome, telling each person that no matter their origins or background, you are communicating with them just as much as the person seated next to them.

Howell’s piece focuses on the power of visual storytelling in training for social media, and for good reason.  In the first line of his Lauro Media article, Tomas Laurinavicius articulates just how much the online world enjoys visual information: usage of visual information online has increased by 9900% since 2007.  And I didn’t add an extra zero to that figure, much as it might look like I did.

Clearly, your best social media presence is one that employs visuals, and storytelling is the best way to engage and hold attention; so why not train the very people charged with making that social media presence worthwhile with the same technique you expect them to utilize?

Of course, it’s not just social media training that benefits from visual storytelling—the approach can benefit almost any training scenario if well-executed.  In her discussion of eLearning video storytelling, Ana Casic echoes Pandey’s emphasis on the importance of the emotional connection facilitated by visual storytelling.  She then goes further by articulating some of the key pieces of visual storytelling each trainer should employ.

Those pieces include a narrative hook, grabbing the attention of the viewer and setting them on a course to maintained engagement; relatable characters that feel real and worth caring about; and the appropriate narrative style.  On the last point, she draws a distinction between “characters speaking like they’re in a TV show,” which she describes as good for storytelling but slower, and “a narrator, talking about characters from a top view,” which she contends is efficient but can stilt audience identification with characters.

Of these, every point makes perfect sense except the last one on narrative style.  In your training materials, you can easily maintain engagement and identification with a character through narration.  It’s a common feature of our videos at TruScribe, and we do not receive complaints that it took people out of the narrative or made them identify less with the characters.

If you’re writing a Hollywood feature, then perhaps you should exclude non-character motivated voiceover; in a training video, however, it’s often a perfect form of address.  You are teaching, after all, and your visual story is there to send a message, not to craft characters that will stick with your learners for life.  You want identification from your audience with your characters, but not so thoroughly that it distracts from the information they need to retain.

Arunima Majumdar’s thoughts on digital stories (visual storytelling in short video form, essentially) in training are extremely salient on this last point—don’t overwork your visual story for training because you’re convinced it has to be a perfect film.  “It is not necessary to explain all incidents and turns in the story in detail,” she writes.

This is a perfect, short answer to potential hand-wringing over narrative style or flawless plotting.  Visual stories are a tool for your organization’s training needs, not a standalone art project.  They can be excellent in construction and reception without bulletproof plots and characters that transform our understanding of the human condition.

In short, achieve identifiable characters, hook your audience into a compelling narrative, and deliver your training message in an engaging, easily retainable way.  Visual storytelling will help you reach broader audiences of learners, engage them with the type of content that only continues to rise in popularity, and find an emotional connection that ensures retention more reliably than non-visual, non-narrative methods.

Does your organization use visual storytelling in training?  How might you begin to shift towards the approach?