Publication Date
Publication Date: 
April 8, 2013

"At the heart of every social cause is the need to connect with people; to inspire, convince, and prompt them to take action or change behaviors. It is a tall order. Words, even carefully chosen words, are almost never enough. Time and time again we have seen it is pictures that make the difference."

This guide to visual storytelling is based on the observation that, "while there have been great advances over the years in word craft, far less attention has been paid to the science of visual communications." The United States (US)-based organisation Resource Media embarked on a research project to better understand and address this imbalance; this report shares some initial discoveries and recommendations.

The resource begins with 3 principles of visual communication:

  1. Humans are visual first, verbal second. - "Effectively pairing words with pictures and video enhances attention, memory, recall, and believability."
  2. Our decisions and actions are based more on emotional reactions than rational thought.
  3. Visuals are the most effective communications vehicles for evoking emotion and getting people to take action.

It continues with 7 "Rules of the Road" for those seeking to maximise the impact visuals can have on the people they are trying to reach. Examples of different photo strategies, with analysis, are provided:

  1. Don't assume others will react to a picture or video the same way you do. Test visuals with your intended audience. (Cost-effective strategies are offered for how to carry out such testing).
  2. Pair your pictures with words for highest impact and to cement them deeper into your audience's memory.
  3. Make sure your images match your message - An example is provided of an anti-smoking ad that shows a person smoking, the idea being that the accompanying audio message will turn people away from cigarettes. However, research found that if you show people smoking in anti-smoking ads, it has an unintended effect of encouraging, not deterring, the use of cigarettes. In spite of the fact that the written messages detail how bad smoking is, the social cues in the images drive people in the exact opposite direction.
  4. Use genuine, not generic, pictures.
  5. Invest the most in the first picture your audience sees, and in overall design quality.
  6. To use pictures effectively, be diligent about taking them and storing them for easy sharing. "Organize a photography workshop for your staff where they can learn simple, but important techniques, such as lighting, angles and composition, for creating interesting photographs. Commit yourself to refreshing your photos often. People can spot it when old photos are used, so keep an eye out for styles, scenery and other environmental nuances that can quickly date an image."
  7. Choose your subjects carefully - "The pictures you use should reflect who your organization really represents."

Included in the resource is a "Viz Quiz", which is a checklist outlining basic steps for integrating a strategic approach for visuals into communications planning.

Resource Media invites readers to share success stories, best practices, questions, and lessons learned. The goal is to create a learning community of practitioners tapping the power of pictures. Please see the contact information, below.

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Email from Brett Davidson to The Communication Initiative on April 8 2013. Image credit: Kathleen Hennessy/PictureWORLDHope