When to Avoid Visual Storytelling

When not to use visual storytelling

Nothing to See Here

In our world of omnipresent cameras and social media, a rejection of visual storytelling (or visuals for any reason, really) is often met with frustration. We know the power of visual storytelling, from everyday conversations to business interactions, so why would we remove access to such a tool? There are several reasons, actually—from sensitive topics to audience preferences, let’s consider some examples of situations when one should not use visual storytelling.

When the subject is too sensitive or too difficult to visualize.

When the topic is extremely sensitive, visual storytelling can be risky.  If the topic of your communications involves tragedy, disaster, or any difficult life events that are painful to discuss even in the best of forums, seriously consider avoiding visual storytelling.  

You might think that visually depicting a horrific or tragic event or situation would be the best way to convince your audience of its seriousness, but exposure to these kinds of visuals tends to have a complex, negative, or potentially traumatic effect.  

Your audience will take your topic seriously, but they’ll be more disturbed than engaged. Disturb your audience too much, and they’ll stop paying attention to protect themselves from the unpleasantness onscreen. You’ll gain their understanding but lose their attention in one fell swoop, and they’ll likely resent you for the experience.  

When your Audience would Prefer a Different Approach

You’ll also need to keep your target audience in mind. Depending on who they are, visual storytelling might be the wrong approach. Older audiences tend to prefer to read rather than watch videos or seek out infographics. When working to reach those audiences, don’t waste your resources creating visual stories that they might skip entirely. Think about writing an article or blog post instead.

Along with audience preferences come media consumption patterns.

Older people tend to read more, but what (and where) do they read?

Do trends suggest online articles and blogs, or newspapers and magazines? 

They’re probably more likely to read newspapers and periodicals, so take two lessons from your audience: the best format, and the best location to use it.

When your Visual Story Would be an Unnecessary Detour

A final way to think about the audience and your approach to visual storytelling is to focus on what your audience expects from your message, not what you think would work. As Fiona Campbell-Howes puts it, “The point about B2B brands is that they don’t fulfill an emotional need, they solve a business problem”.

If your brand is business-facing and your product is office equipment, your clients probably aren’t expecting (or needing) visual storytelling to influence their decision.  

Your client just wants the product to work reliably. They’re busy, and they don’t need to view your story about your product’s journey from the factory, etc. Visual storytelling takes time to create and to consume, and you’ll be wasting both your and the client’s time.  

Some products and services have a very short story that hardly bears discussion: “This will do what you need it to.  The end”. There’s no benefit to making this a visual story, or dwelling on the ‘story’ at all.

Use visual storytelling to stir emotion, persuade, lock in engagement and improve retention—not to wow a client with the tale of your stapler’s journey from factory to office use. It’s a practice called “taking your audience on unnecessary detours,” and you’ll do better to avoid it.

When your Don’t Have the Data to Support Your Visual Story

Aleksandra Todorova cautions against using visual storytelling when the data you have doesn’t support the story you want to tell. “Non-data visualization,” or unsupported claims with accompanying images, rarely convince viewers. Visual storytelling tends to be effective in reaching people, and it’d be great to slip a non-data assertion like “We care the most” under the wire. But if you could back that claim with data, you would—and viewers will realize this.

When the Only Reason to Use Visual Storytelling is Your Narrative Bias

Watch out for narrative bias—it may trick you into thinking you should be using visual storytelling when it just doesn’t fit. Narrative bias is the tendency to fit information into a greater narrative or pattern when they’re actually discrete pieces of information.

In the pilot episode of the show “Community,” protagonist Jeff (Joel McHale) illustrates narrative bias with a pencil. By naming the object ‘Steve’ before breaking it in half, Jeff makes another student groan in empathy for the broken pencil. In that example, all it takes is a name to make the pencil a character in a story—a sad one that ends with Steve being broken.

Of course, the pencil breaking isn’t actually a visual story. It’s manipulation, playing off of narrative bias to drive an emotional response. Don’t do this to your audience, as they will usually see through your flimsy story and tune out. And don’t do it to yourself—don’t decide without justification that there must be a visual story if there isn’t enough material to create an authentic one.

People Avoid Visual Storytelling More than you Think

Finally, know that avoiding visual storytelling isn’t as extreme a decision as it might seem. Especially outside of the business world, professionals choose to avoid it every day.  

Law enforcement constrains visual storytelling by banning cameras at crime scenes to safeguard investigations and future prosecutions. Celebrities remove images that tell the wrong story about their public persona. The military protects its personnel and operations by limiting images and stories.  

These people are practicing the same concepts discussed above: audience awareness, avoiding sensitivity, telling only the stories that have the data and message to warrant telling.

Visual storytelling works extremely well in many, many contexts. At TruScribe, it’s not just our specialty—it defines us, drives our passion to create and to constantly improve.

There are times, though, when a message is best told in a different medium. Know your audience, your message, and your biases, and you’ll know when to choose non-visual communication.