Visual Storytelling: How to Add Compelling Stories to Your Presentations

Image, story, emotion, action — these are the elements of visual storytelling. Throughout recorded history, humankind has told stories to communicate important concepts. With modern technology, anyone can be a storyteller. Even if you lack the skills and equipment to create a video that tells your story, you can use static images and your presentation skills to tell compelling stories to your audience.

Imagine you are training procurement executives on the ins and outs of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). If you were in the audience, which of these opening segments would best capture your attention and make you want to learn more about how to comply with the FCPA?

  • The presenter displays a bullet-pointed list of the criminal and civil penalties for violating the FCPA.
  • The presenter displays images of mug shots of executives who have violated the FCPA and the prison sentence or fine that each received.
  • The presenter displays an image of an expensive diamond necklace and tells a story that does not have a happy ending. An executive traveling on a business trip visited the owner of a foreign factory. The factory owner gave the executive’s wife a diamond necklace. The next day, the executive signed a new supply agreement. His wife did not declare the diamond necklace to Customs, and officials seized the necklace and reported the seizure to the executive’s employer. The company fired the executive, but that was the least of his worries. The official investigation into the necklace revealed other undeclared gifts, and the executive and his wife were arrested on charges of tax evasion and FCPA charges.

In the final example, the presenter used an image to launch a compelling story and grab his audience’s attention. The tale of a gift gone wrong made the audience want to learn the rules that apply to giving and receiving gifts outside the U.S. so they don’t end up like the executive and his wife.

This formula — image, story, emotion, action — is your key to visual storytelling.

Image

Use high-quality, high-resolution images to launch your stories. Don’t copy images from the Internet. Instead, purchase inexpensive stock images that help communicate your message. Use a digital camera to take your own photos, or ask a colleague with an eye for composition to take photos for you.

Use a “hero image” — a single, compelling photograph stretched across a slide without text — to illustrate your story. Be creative in your choice of images. You can use the image of the diamond necklace from the anti-bribery story described above to tell the story of a successful sales representative buying herself the necklace with the bonus she receives from a sales incentive program you are announcing. Use a different image for each part of the story. Use similar types of images for a cohesive look; don’t mix photographs and cartoon-like illustrations in the same story.

Story

Make your story short and focused. A multimedia presenter for the University of Washington recommends that you tell your story in two minutes or less and that you concentrate on just one main point. Your story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should be interesting, and the audience should be able to understand how it relates to the subject of your presentation.

Give your story a main character, and give your main character a name. An instructor leading a privacy training session tells the story of Monica, who keeps getting arrested for crimes committed by someone who stole her identity from a dumpster after a bank worker forgot to shred Monica’s banking records before she threw them away. Then she tells the audience about Mark, an accountant who meant well when he took spreadsheet files home on a USB memory device so he could work on them during tax season. Mark didn’t realize that he pushed the device out of his pocket and dropped it in the parking lot when he got his car keys out to unlock his car. It will take Mark four hours to discover that he doesn’t have the files, which contain the social security numbers of hundreds of customers. He will return to the parking lot, but the USB stick will be gone.

Each of these stories illustrates that a careless error by anyone in the audience could have disastrous effects. Each story prepares the audience to learn how to protect customers’ personal information.

Emotion

Your story should stir an emotional connection in your audience. Of course, the emotion you want to stir will determine the kind of story you want to tell. Consider your call to action and decide whether you want to use a “carrot” or a “stick” to motivate your audience. The carrot approach uses emotions associated with rewards: loyalty, desire, eagerness to please. The stick approach uses emotions associated with punishment: fear, anxiety, eagerness to avoid consequences.

A comedian once said that it’s harder to make an audience laugh than it is to make them cry, so don’t try to tell a funny story unless you’re sure the punch line will draw a laugh. Use tricks of the trade, such as dramatic pauses, well-rehearsed gestures and eye contact with the audience, to help you make your point.

Action

Your story should support your call to action — the reason you are delivering this message to this audience. A call to action is usually a request that the audience start doing something or stop doing something. You could be asking the audience to buy a product, make a donation or change a behavior. Whatever the call to action is, it should flow smoothly from the emotion you have evoked in your listener.

Visual storytelling requires planning and practice. Telling a visual story involves more work than reading bullet points off a slide, but the payoff is greater. You’ll start to notice that your audiences are more alert and engaged. You’ll see them answer your call to action, and your reputation as an effective communicator will grow.

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