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How to tell a story without words.

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How to tell a story without words.


Visual storytelling is about how to tell a story with no words. Not
possible! says the writer. Without words there is no story.
Technically, I suppose thats true on some level but every thought,
feeling and emotion we have can be told with visuals.
One of the best examples of visual storytelling is in the movie UP.
At the beginning of the movie the animators tell us the story of Carl
and Ellies marriage in four minutes and its a real tear-jerker. Four
minutes of cartoon thats as good as Terms of Endearment or Old
Yeller. It will leave you choked up and calling your wife to tell her
you love her.
Edward Hoppers Nighthawks
gives us an unvarnished view of
late night city life.
Edward Hoppers Nighthawks gives us an unvarnished view of late
night city life.

The old saying a picture is worth a thousand words is truer today


than ever before. My generation grew up on TV, todays kids have

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How to tell a story without words.

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streaming video in their hand at all times. Visuals are king! The only
movies that make money any more are special effect driven
extravaganzas that are light on plot but way over the top on
computer generated graphics. The last Transformer movie
employed over 500 people who created the effects that comprised
90 minutes of the 150-minute film.
Social media is fast becoming an entirely visual realm. Instagram
and Pinterest are growing faster than text-based channels. In 2013,
Facebook reported that users were uploading 350 million photos a
day!
So what makes for a great visual story? Like the marriage
sequence in UP, a great visual evokes an emotion. Capturing
emotion in a photo, a drawing, a painting, even a movie can be very
difficult. For one thing, the subject of the visual has to be emoting. It
has to be real or at least seem real in the case of good actors.
Weve all laughed when a bad actor tries to be emotional in movie
or TV show. William Shatner, whom I love, is a classic case of an
actor over emoting. But he has done it for so long and so
consistently, I love him for it.

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How to tell a story without words.

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Jack Vettriano takes a lot of crap from art critics but there is no
denying his paintings tell stories so well we want to know whats
happening.

To capture emotion in a visual the artist has to know real emotion


when he sees it. Some degree of empathy for the subject or
situation is required. Years ago I was sent to Fort Campbell
Kentucky to film soldiers returning from the first Gulf War. We
waited with their families all day until finally a big 747 came out of
the clear blue sky and went roaring down the runway disappearing
behind some trees at the far end of the airbase. The families
cheered as the 747 taxied back to our position. A hatch on the roof
of the plane above the cockpit was open and a soldier was waving
a giant American flag. The aircraft came to a stop and the soldiers
deplaned. My film crew and I waited in the hangar with the families
and tried to capture as many tearful reunions as we could in the
chaos. Now, not every situation is so loaded with raw emotion but
you have to be ready and open to the possibility of something
extraordinary happening at any time.
The second key ingredient to visual storytelling is there has to be
more to the story than is actually contained in the visual. The viewer

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How to tell a story without words.

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has to know there is more to the story than meets the eye. The
visual actually creates a kind of knowledge gap. The visual is a
moment in time but the viewer understands there was something
happening just before or just after the visual was created.
On August 1. 1981, MTV launched and changed pop music forever.
Suddenly we were no longer happy just listening to music, we
wanted to watch music. The music video had been around for a
while but the volume of videos needed to fill 24 hours a day created
a new kind of visual storyteller, the music video director. Early
videos were mostly performance pieces, but as the network grew,
talented directors started visualizing the concept of the song and
shooting what amounted to mini movies.
I asked my friend and one of the top music video directors, Wes
Edwards, to describe his process for creating a music video. Wes
has shot hundreds of videos for some of the biggest recording stars
in the world. Country superstars Dierks Bentley and Jason Aldean
turn to Wes to bring their music to life. In fact, Wes won the CMA
Music Video of the Year in 2014 with Dierks Bentley and Drunk On
A Plane.
My process when I begin to visualize a music video is very free
form. The music will evoke feelings and memories that often at
first seem to have no rational attachment to the song.
From there I hone in on a particular visual symbol or metaphor

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How to tell a story without words.

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that will heighten the emotional impact of the music. I try to


consciously use symbols images and codes that connect with the
viewer on a subconscious level.
If a story is being told I try to find an unusual element or twist on
the lyrics to connect the audience to the meaning of the song in
an unexpected way.
Wes doesnt just film the lyrics, he brings his own visual language
to the project to make the music video experience richer and
deeper. He adds layers of meaning to what the songwriter and
recording artist are trying to say through their music. I can say he
does the same thing shooting commercials and videos for me. He
always brings something new and interesting to the project.
These two lovers seem to
oblivious to the Vancouver
Hockey riot happening all around
them. But theres actually way
more to story than meets the eye.
These two lovers seem to oblivious to the Vancouver Hockey riot
happening all around them. But theres actually way more to story
than meets the eye.

The third leg of visual storytelling is supporting an existing story


with a powerful visual. Most of the time marketers use visuals to
decorate the words. Every bad power point using Microsoft clip art
is the perfect example of this bad practice. You can tell its bad

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How to tell a story without words.

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simply because if the visuals were missing none of the


communication would be lost.
I warn you relegate visuals to the backseat at your own peril. The
book Emotionomics points out that two-thirds of the stimuli reaching
the brain are visual. Over 50% of the brain is devoted to processing
visual images. As a result 80% of learning is visual-based.
Think of it this way, if your message is a nail, then the visual is the
hammer that drives it home. Expecting the rational power of words
to incite emotion instead of the inherently emotional power of
visuals is miscalculation made everyday in marketing meetings.
Dont get me wrong, a good headline or tagline can work wonders.
But the image of a cowboy is far more effective and says more
about the brand and the audience than the phrase Come to
Marlboro Country.

After throwing an interception, an aging Y.A. Tittle fell to his knees in

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How to tell a story without words.

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his own end-zone. The visual captures the story of an athlete at the
end of his long career.

Despite these facts most marketers work exclusively with words.


Have you ever seen any pictures in a marketing plan, ever? Nope.
Just words and charts.
According to Laura Ries book Visual Hammer The visual attracts
the attention of the right side of the brain which sends a message to
the left side of the brain to read or listen to the words associated
with visual. A visual hammer makes an emotional impact on the
right side of the brain which motivates the left side of the brain to
verbalize the idea and then store it.
Think of it this way, if your message is a nail, then the visual is the
hammer that drives it home. Expecting the rational power of words
to incite emotion instead of the inherently emotional power of
visuals is miscalculation made everyday in marketing meetings.
Dont get me wrong, a good headline or tagline can work wonders.
But the image of a cowboy is far more effective and says more
about the brand and the audience than the phrase Come to
Marlboro Country.
Learn to embrace visuals as a powerful tool in your marketing.
Theyre not just decoration. A stock photo is rarely as good as an
image designed especially for that message. Use visuals to evoke
emotions and make your message stick on both sides of the
audiences brain.
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