What Does Research Tell Us About Visual Storytelling?

What does research say about visual storytelling?

Over the past several years, visual storytelling has become more and more popular with marketers and communicators around the world.  At TruScribe, we’re excited by the growing enthusiasm for visual storytelling. We employ the strongest visual stories and increase the engagement and retention of our clients’ messages.  While many articles seek to reveal the best way to design a visual story or promote your visual storytelling, with this piece, we take a different approach. What does the research say about visual storytelling?

The first thing research tells us is that we’re no longer dealing with the internet that existed ten years ago.  We’ve seen the rise of the “visual Web,” in which “massive content production and consumption” is happening on platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and burgeoning technologies like virtual and augmented reality.  The growth of these visual social networks makes perfect sense, given the human brain’s preference for visual over textual information. 40% of people do inherently better with visual information.

Visual storytelling provides an unrivaled amount of information in an extremely short time.  It takes less than a tenth of a second for people to get an idea of a visual layout.  With this rate of understanding, you won’t have to worry nearly as much about losing your audience before they’ve encountered your core message.  

While blog posts or other media might need to drill home their point overtly, research shows that visuals are taken in almost unconsciously.  The information registers with the viewer almost before they can realize it. Put your most important ideas early in your visual story and you can expect them to be communicated successfully.

Visually Wired

Park Howell provides some more arresting statistics about the efficacy of visual storytelling.  On the rate of information intake, Howell calls us “visually wired,” able to process a symbol in just 150 milliseconds.  Moreover, it takes a mere 100 milliseconds to attach a meaning to that symbol.   Your viewers, then, aren’t just absorbing information at incredible speed—they’re analyzing it, and categorizing it with a meaning.  Be sure, then, that the meaning they assign your image aligns with your message, through carefully choosing the images in your visual story to reinforce your script and themes.

Howell also gives us a figure to illustrate the educational power of visual storytelling. People follow directions 323% better when the information was delivered to them with visuals as opposed to without.  Wondering about the efficacy of your training, and how much of the material your trainees will retain and act upon?  Include visuals in your materials to see a marked rise in the action you need to see.

Sifting Through Information

Finally, here’s a figure to consider regarding the true value of information intake speed and need for viewer attention. We receive five times as much information today as compared to 1986.  From the technology of the 1980’s that remains in widespread use (television, radio, film) to the informational tidal wave unleashed daily from our modern technology (phones, tablets, streaming services, social media, etc.), we are exposed to a massive amount of information each day.

Visual storytelling can cut through that overload.  Even if your visual story reaches a viewer as part of an information deluge, the brain’s affinity for visual information will help your visual story engage and be retained by your viewer.  Visuals are understood to be less demanding by consumers, especially when compared to a lengthy textual piece.  The brain agrees, requiring virtually no effort to rapidly process and assign value or meaning to visuals.  So when your target audience sees your visual story, they’ll be more likely to explore it. Their minds will waste no time internalizing and assigning meaning to your images.

Stories Stay With Us

Now, let’s shift our examination to research on storytelling.  Clearly, visuals are a major boon to understanding and retention, but what is it about storytelling that makes it effective?

At TruScribe, we describe storytelling as our human coding language.  It’s how we communicate best, as our brains can engage the content on multiple levels. It can track the narrative over its events, relate to the characters and their actions, and interrogate the message.  Even a simple story can create a major difference in retention.

As an example, if I asked someone to remember the number fourteen, after a few days, we can expect a reasonable chance that the person may have forgotten the number.  But if I ask them to remember the number fourteen, and then tell them a story, we can expect them to have a much higher chance of remembering the number.  My story: My friend recently got only fourteen percent of the vote in a local election, even though he campaigned tirelessly.  We think it’s because of his plan to mandate llama ownership.

With that story—especially its silly ending—a listener will have context for the information.  It now has a meaning: fourteen percent of the vote, instead of ‘fourteen’ in a vacuum.  My friend sounds like a character.  Retention follows naturally.

We’re Always Craving More

We spend a third of our lives falling into daydreams and fantasizing our own scenarios and stories; for marketers, this fact roars with opportunity.  The brain is “greedy for stories,” understanding from a young age the difference between fact-based writing and a good story.  The brain prefers the story, by a considerable margin.  So do what your audience’s brains are already doing: tell a story.  And make sure that story engages and stays with your viewer through visuals.

Visual storytelling is not just a buzzword or trend.  It’s a mode of communication that, as the research above shows, is highly effective at engaging an audience and staying with them.  It promotes action in training and brand engagement in marketing. It also takes advantage of the brain’s natural preference for visual information and storytelling.

Do the figures above convince you of the importance of visual storytelling?  Have you seen similar improvements in your numbers with the inclusion of visual storytelling in your business?  Are there other approaches you find as effective?  How might this data change your current visual storytelling strategy?