A woman is embraced at arrival in Cido at the border of Chad after escaping Bangui on the convoy with some 1,300 Muslims on 30 April 2014. Photo: Catianne Tijerina/International Organization for Migration (IOM)

Engaging Audiences through Visual Storytelling

Amy Rhoades and Dan Stein


Why are Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood so successful? Because they’ve mastered the art of capturing audiences’ hearts and minds through storytelling.

If you want to successfully share key messages whether it’s raising awareness on human trafficking or hand washing instructions to prevent the spread of cholera, take a page out of Hollywood’s book and embed your key messages in a story. It’s so enjoyable that your audience won’t even realize they’ve been ‘edutained’...

As the ancient Chinese proverb tells us «  A picture is worth a thousand words. »

Perhaps that’s never been more true than in this fast-paced, multimedia era. (When was the last time you read 1000 words?) And when you think about those cave paintings from the dawn of humanity, you realize that we have been looking at images for far longer than the relatively recent invention of words.

Ninety percent of the information transmitted to our brain is visual. It's well understood that an image can convey complex thoughts and emotions… if you manage to catch people’s attention. The explosion of media content creates a fierce competition for capturing and keeping people's attention. People on average watch a video for 23 seconds and skim an article for a similar amount of time. To effectively tell your (or your project’s) story, you need more than a beautiful article or summary report. You need compelling images and videos that engage audiences. This is especially true of your work in the field. Take your audience there through Visual Storytelling.

So what are key things to remember when using Visual Storytelling to engage your audience?

  1. Start strong to engage effectively

The first few seconds of a video clip will determine viewer engagement, so begin with strong appealing visuals and compelling captions. Whenever possible show and don’t tell, presenting your story as efficiently and concisely as possible, while ensuring authenticity. The storytelling needs to emotionally engage your audience. Don’t let logos overshadow your story; keep them on the periphery or towards the end.

For more tips, watch this informative Guide to Effective Audiovisual Communications

  1. Make sure you’ve got DIBS (Dignity, Informed Consent, Balance, Safety) on every story you tell
  • Dignity

Remember how you felt when your friend posted that embarrassing photo of you on Facebook? Everyone deserves dignity and respect, particularly in visual storytelling. Be sensitive of culture and context to ensure that the people and scenes you are capturing are appropriate. Avoid images or clips that are disempowering, embarrassing or suggest that the person in front of the camera lacks agency. If in doubt, ask yourself if you’d be willing to be portrayed in the same manner.

  • Informed Consent

Before starting an interview or taking a photo, ensure you have recorded the person’s comprehension and agreement to sharing their image or story. You can do this by having them sign a paper-based or digital consent form in the appropriate language. (If there is any confusion on what is being asked, engage a translator to ensure this is clearly explained.)  For persons with limited literacy skills, you can record their verbal consent.

  • Balance

Visual storytelling should represent diversity and a balance of gender. Avoid portraying women in traditional roles or using images that propagate stereotypes. Some of the most powerful stories are those which challenge our preconceived ideas on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religion, class, nationality etc. Dare to change people’s perceptions through your storytelling!

  • Safety

Understand the sensitivities of visual storytelling when working with vulnerable individuals such as victims of trafficking, asylum seekers, irregular migrants etc. If showing a person’s identity or location could put them at risk, find alternative ways of telling their story. Capture people’s profile, hands or their surroundings to fill in the missing parts of the story.

  1. Tell more and better stories… without the film crew

Think you need to hire an expensive film crew before you can capture stories in the field? Think again. Reach into your pocket and you’ll find all the equipment you need. Smartphone cameras are now so advanced that they can compete with many of the traditional cameras on the market. So even if you don’t have the word ‘communications’ in your title or a fancy camera crew by your side, you can easily become a visual storyteller. A new digital communications tool, Community Response, has been developed to help capture stories in the field and share the impact of your work.

Learn more by watching this short video Community Response - Outreach. Feedback. Visibility

  1. Use visual storytelling as a tool

Visual storytelling is an excellent way to demonstrate the impact of your work and connect people to important issues both globally and locally but it can also be used as a vehicle for action. The goal may be for people to lend their support by contributing time or resources to a certain cause. It could also to influence people’s perceptions or promote behavioural change on a specific topic. Indeed that is why Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood are so successful... Because they are experts in visual storytelling.

Stories are powerful because they take us on a journey and can impart important messages along the way. So engage your audience by telling a story… visually. The key to getting started is right in your pocket.