What’s Your Story?

What’s Your Story?

storiesmatter - dawn deano

“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” —Ira Glass

We live in an overstimulated world. Our phones and social networks have us linked to an unstoppable stream of content. Yet, people are still hungry for stories. Storytelling is both the oldest way of educating people and the newest form of brand marketing. That’s because in a technological age, outstanding storytelling that relies heavily on images and sound gets noticed. It rises above the rest and gets shared.

Powerful images create memorable stories. They enchant, teach, and inspire us to act. They evoke emotion, deepen connections, and increase engagement. Memorable images and the stories behind them linger with us.

For nonprofits and funders, visual storytelling has become an imperative for capturing attention. Visual storytelling is fast and effective; engages your audience; can help raise funds; and can be an empowering experience for the storyteller.

Fast and Effective

Communicating visually gets your message across quickly to your audience—and that’s necessary today. The average adult attention span is now approximated at about 8 seconds—smaller than for a goldfish.

Using images or videos to communicate your purpose gives you the benefit of being more memorable and allows your viewers to absorb more of your content before they bounce off your page.

Scientists have a name for this: the pictorial superiority effect. The visual cortex is the largest system in the human brain. The visual sense dominates. Study after study bears this out: Effectively pairing words with pictures and video enhances attention, memory, recall, and believability. Images are more likely to be remembered than words.

Engages Your Audience

Visual storytelling engages an audience by affecting them emotionally. Good visuals make people feel first and think second. Effective stories with pictures and videos evoke powerful emotions; create connections; take us on a journey; and inspire and drive us to make decisions. By stimulating people’s emotions you can boost the odds of your audience acting on your call-to-action.

Stories should convey emotions that move people to act, and marry these with clear, easy-to-find pathways to get them to those desired actions, according to Stories Worth Telling, A Guide to Strategic and Sustainable Nonprofit Storytelling by Georgetown University and the Meyer Foundation.

Helps Raise Funds

People give when they feel—not necessarily because they think. “Personal stories were listed as one of the top three ways donors feel most involved with non-profits,” according to an engagement study by Albia, a company that provides software and services for nonprofit organizations and aligns non-profit strategy with donor preferences.

In addition Deborah Small, a Wharton marketing professor and two of her colleagues found in their research that people are two times as likely to give a charitable gift when presented with an emotion-inducing personal story that focuses exclusively on one victim’s plight rather than a group of “unnamed statistical victims.”

Empowering the Storyteller

Rarely discussed and often unnoticed is the impact on non-profits of the interviewing and gathering of personal stories that goes into visual storytelling. Why an impact? Because they empower the storyteller.

When people get to tell their story and be seen, they become empowered. They receive the gift of being noticed and valued, an essential need in life. Storytelling can be cathartic and therapeutic and has become a widely written about, valid approach to health and wellness.

As one M.D., Lissa Rankin, puts it, personal storytelling can prompt relaxation responses that can “turn on the body’s innate self-repair mechanisms and function as preventative medicine—or treatment if you’re sick. It also relaxes your nervous system and helps heal your mind of depression, anxiety, fearanger, and feelings of disconnection.”

Nonprofit Sector

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” —Maya Angelou

Although storytelling is in the spotlight of marketing these days, nonprofits have always gathered stories to tell about their service, progress, and needs. Yet, even with their wealth of great stories, nonprofits tend to fall short when it comes to collecting and sharing them. In The State of Storytelling, a 2015 research project co-executed by The Storytelling Non-Profit and Network For Good, nonprofits identified the biggest challenge to storytelling was the actual collection process. The trouble can stem from executive directors, fundraisers, and communications professionals who are not on the frontlines where the stories are gathered and then shared.

Nevertheless, with the constant demand to engage audiences on various social media platforms, visual storytelling has becoming the essential and effective tool to do so. So how can you use visual storytelling to move your agency forward? Here are 9 tactics I recommend.

1—SLOW DOWN and create a culture of storytelling

Cultivating your visual stories can be fun and rewarding, and offer you a chance to slow down and focus on the values of your organization. Make it fun! Carve out some time to think about the stories you might want to tell.

2—Know your audience

Who is your target audience? Who do you want to communicate your message to? Ask, “Would this message resonate with my target audience?” Whose hearts and minds do you need to win over?

3—Make a plan

Think about the message you want to communicate. What do you want your audience to remember? Decide what channels you will use to tell this story and what your call to action is. Meet with your staff to hear the stories they want to tell. Consider whom you may interview. Ask staff to block out time and keep a log of potential stories to be told. Create a culture of storytelling and sharing.

4—Start small

Start small and add on. Focus on one person (client, volunteer, funder) or aspect at a time. Develop the larger story of your agency over time. Tell a simple truth and make it personal.

5—Know the four principles of effective imagery

Whether your staff is taking photos or you hire a photographer, understand the essentials of effective imagery: being authentic, exciting the senses, evoking a familiar archetype, and being relevant.

Being authentic. Because of the ever-evolving platforms of media—Instagram, Facebook and YouTube—visual language is changing more rapidly than ever before. The viewer wants to see authenticity—something they can believe is real. They want to see something that speaks to them personally, and show candid, true events of everyday life. Never before has the human race been better at spotting a fake.

“The viewer’s eye has become a lot more sophisticated, and what it wants—above all—is something real,” said Pam Grossman, Getty Images director of Visual Trends.

Exciting the senses. Despite the fast-paced lifestyle and information overload, people still yearn for sensory stimulation. People want to be engulfed by visceral experiences to counter the digital world. We want high detail; wrinkles; texture. We want to smell and touch. We want to feel connected. The more senses that are engaged, the more attention received and the information retained.

Evoking a familiar archetype. “In every story ever told, a powerful character has fueled the narrative. These figures embody an array of personas that have remained more or less the same for thousands of years. Archetypes are just as powerful today as they were at the dawn of humanity.” (The Power of Visual Storytelling)

Create an aspirational persona, moving beyond demographics and thinking about an emotional connection. For example, when selecting images ask are you perpetuating stereotypes? Is the image dated? There is a responsibility when choosing images to be aware of how people are depicted.

Being relevant. Inclusiveness and diversity are two issues that are culturally relevant today. Though not everyone favors social shifts, incorporating cultural relevancy in visual storytelling makes for a powerful campaign as it creates a deeper emotional connection and understanding of the current culture. Choose images that capture a moment in real time and make relevant connections with how we live our lives today.

6—Include text in your pictures

Pictures and text reinforce one another. Add captions or overlay text onto the pictures so that they can travel together throughout the social web.

7—Make sure your images match your message

Our brains are designed to heed visual cues, so it’s critical that photos carry the message we’re trying to send. If your visuals send one message and your words send another, you create a disconnect for your audience.

8—Be diligent in taking good photos or hire a photographer

If you don’t hire a photographer, ask or decide which staff members will take on the photography. You may have a photography enthusiast already on staff. Make sure they have time in their days to be intentional with taking photos, and be sure to discuss with your staff the stories you are hoping to capture in photos.

A hired professional photographer or videographer can have a measurable effect on brand perception, raising your supporters’ level of emotional connection and engagement. Budget for photography and video like you would for website and other design work. High-quality design without high-quality visuals can be a waste of money.

9—Photograph people

Choose your subjects carefully. Common ground between your cause and your audience can quickly be established through pictures of people. People, people, people! I cannot reinforce this point enough. Treat your subjects with dignity, and showcase their hope to generate the same feeling on the viewers end.

Resources to consider when creating your visual stories:

Mashup sites—Animoto, Haiku Deck Editor, Rock You, Slide, Stupeflix all offer a chance to add images, song, and words to create a compelling slideshow

See3 Communications and Storytellers for Good are great sites to check out and get inspired by other non-profit visual storytelling examples.

Soundshare—Here you can create a photo and audio slideshow that is highly visual and impactful.

YouTube—A free ‘call to action’ overlay can be added to your videos


Case Studies:

These examples of visual storytelling can help you get inspired. You’ll see how effective it is to personally feel the message in creative and engaging ways.

Animoto. At this website that showcases videos created for causes, the video for the American Cancer Society is particularly compelling, but you can view the projects of other non-profits as well.


A Glimmer of Hope has a simple but visually effective website.

South Hill Community has a remarkable visual sense of telling its story on this website.

Volunteers of America

Waiting for Death


For a more detailed list of a resources to develop your visual storytelling plan, visit my website.


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