James C. Gunter

James C. Gunter

How Visual Storytelling Helps Your Audience Remember Your Message

cave paintings from a cave in Southeast Asia

For thousands of years before the advent of the written word, humans passed down knowledge through visual storytelling. Here are four ways that visual storytelling can help you can make your message more resonant and memorable.

In 1902, Swiss naturalists and cousins Fritz and Paul Sarasin, arrived on the island of Celebes in Southwest Asia (what is known today as the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia) to begin their second investigation of the island.

As they went about their study of the island's flowers and plants, they came across a series of caves outside the town of Maros. They later wrote in their report of the expedition that the insides of the caves were covered in crude ancient paintings depicting local wildlife and hand stencils. Little did the Sarasins know they had stumbled upon some of the oldest evidence of human expression ever discovered.

Recent uranium dating of the calcite deposits surrounding those paintings indicate that some of the oldest portions of the cave date back nearly 40,000 years.

Keep in mind, written language has only be around for about 6,000 years. That means for at least 32,000 years before the ancient Sumerians created the first written language, humans connected with each other through pictures.

Human history is rife with examples of pictographs used to tell stories and pass information through time. For example, cathedrals of the middle ages were filled with stained glass windows and frescoes depicting the stories of the bible.

stained glass window Flickr

Visual storytelling like this allowed peasants, who couldn't read or write, to learn bible stories and pass on cultural beliefs and values through generations. From ancient cave paintings to cathedrals to today's comic books, visual storytelling has been used as a powerful tool to help people learn and remember information.

Narratives by themselves have already proven to elevate oxytocin levels in the brain, which can result in greater trust and empathy. However, when you pair a narrative with visuals, the combination creates a host of positive effects, like better memory recall and a more enjoyable, immersive experience for the viewer. (Not to mentioned, pictures are just more fun.)

If you want your storytelling to have maximum impact, here are four ways that adding visuals can enhance the effectiveness of your storytelling.

1) Visuals Create the Picture Superiority Effect

It seems almost self-evident that humans respond to pictures and visuals better than words alone. This is called the Picture Superiority Effect, and it means that, as humans, we are simply more likely to remember visual information than verbal information.

Although science has not yet pinpointed why pictures seem to lodge on our brains easier that words, researcher Allan Paivio has presented the dual-encoding theory to help explain why this takes place. Paivio theorizes that our brain processes information in various ways--verbally, experientially, visually, etc. When we hear or read about an abstract concept, it is processed by the verbal centers of our brain and encoded in our memory. However, when we see a visual, like a picture of a kitten, that picture is dual-encoded in our brains, because the picture is processed by the visual part of your brain and the verbal part of our brain simultaneously. The dual-encoding of the visual + verbal information makes visual concepts more memorable.

dual encoding diagram

2) Visuals Evoke Physical Sensations

Have you ever looked at a picture of the beach and felt the sensation of sand between your toes, the smell of salt in the air, or the breeze on your face? That's because pictures can evoke sense memory. For example, look at the picture below. What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? What do you taste on your tongue?

beach at sunset

Researchers at the National Institute of Neuroscience in Turin, Itay discovered that the same part of the brain responsible for processing our senses (sight, taste, smell, touch, and hearing) is also responsible for storing our memories. Looking at pictures of people, places, or objects can bring the sounds, smells, and tastes to the forefront of our brains, helping immerse us in a story. When a story is able to evoke our senses, we enjoy it more and remember it better.

3) Visuals Are Memorable

Our capacity for remembering images is amazing, but you probably don't now how amazing it really is. To blow your mind, let's turn to science.

Two studies conducted in the late 60s and early 70s indicate that our brain's capacity for remembering images is so good it's almost scary.

In the first study, conducted at Harvard in 1967, participants were shown a set of 600 randomly selected images. Afterward, subjects were presented with a series of image pairs. One image was from the set they'd already seen and the other was a new image they had not. Subjects were able to identify the picture they had already seen with 98 percent accuracy!

A few years later, at the University of Rochester in New York, another study showed participants a set of 2,500 pictures for 10 seconds each. Then they were shown a series of paired images and asked to identify the one they'd already seen. Just like the first test, participants were able to correctly identify an average of 2,000 images! And if that isn't amazing enough, the researches found they could show participants images for as little as one second at a time and participants could still identify the picture they'd seen--even up to three days afterward!

Do you want to lodge your message deeply into your audience's brain? Using visuals is clearly an effective way to get your audience to remember you.

4) Visuals Cut Through the Clutter

Back in 2006, Dr. J. Walker-Smith, President of the marketing firm Yankelovich, Inc., famously told CBS news that his firm had conducted research and determined that "we've gone from being exposed to about 500 ads a day back in the 1970's to as many as 5,000 a day today."

He went on to say that:

"Well, it's a non-stop blitz of advertising messages.... Everywhere we turn we're saturated with advertising messages trying to get our attention.... It seems like the goal of most marketers and advertisers nowadays is to cover every blank space with some kind of brand logo or a promotion or an advertisement."

Today, we're bombarded with advertisements from the time we wake up to the time we go to bed, and the only way a message is going to cut through all that garbage is if it stands out. Visuals can help you cut though the noise.

In an oft-cited study, Skyward measured the performance of tens of thousands of articles on a wide variety of topics across the internet. They found that articles containing relevant pictures and visuals received 94 percent more views than articles without images. Pictures simply draw our eyes and make us want to click.

Additionally, numerous eye-tracking studies find that when looking at content on the internet, our eyes spend more time looking at pictures than anything else. For example, this study by Moz found that video thumbnails and other visual cues attracted more attention from viewers--even if they were not the top results.

Google results eye-tracking results. Heat map shows more attention paid to pictures and graphics than to words. Moz

As you can see from these eye-tracking heat maps, search results paired with a visual element drew more attention than the top results on the page. Even when the visual is just a tiny pin icon, we're more likely to look at it than simple text.

Whether your story contains beautiful pictures or just small icons to help guide the reader through your narrative, visuals stand out, and help your audience pay attention.

From Cave Paintings to Search Results, Our Brains Love Visuals

The Indonesian cave paintings were not a significant discovery for Fritz and Paul Sarasin. In fact, they only mentioned them in passing as part of their study of the flower and plants of the island. They didn't know how old the painting were, nor did they see them as a sign that humans are hardwired to communicate through visual storytelling.

However, modern science proves that pictures and visuals can have a significant impact on our senses and our memories--even more than we may realize. Pairing good storytelling with compelling and relevant visuals can help your audience understand, help them remember your message, and boost your ability to cut through the clutter of adverting.

So, the next time you want your message to be heard, understood, and remembered, put it in a story and tell it with pictures.