8 takeaways from:
The power of visual storytelling

We recently ran an event with the PPA (Professional Publishers Association) to put a spotlight on the power of visual storytelling.

Here are a series of practical takeaways and tips from the expert speakers who joined us on the day.

Readers want to be informed, inspired and engaged. Visual storytelling is a powerful way to connect deeper with online audiences, across devices.

Visual storytelling can help make the complex easier to understand, and deliver more impact as a result.

See how Euromoney breaks down the data in Game Changer, not Game Over, or how the Telegraph provides deeper geographical and statistical context as the reader scrolls in Fleeing Syria.

Equally, by delivering a more compelling narrative you can drive your audience to take actions, whether simply being more inclined to share a story with their own network, or perhaps donating or adding their name to a cause.

The combination of rich visuals and great writing can also often help to bring to life the emotion and atmosphere of a story in a way a standalone medium never could.

Read more on how the British Red Cross uses Shorthand to share powerful narratives on often complicated matters.

And readers are engaging. The average time spent on a Shorthand story in 2016 was 18 minutes, and more than half the traffic to Shorthand stories comes from mobile devices – proving that even on smaller screens there is an appetite, and attention span for more visual, engaging storytelling.

Don’t ask too much of your readers. They like to scroll, but limit extra clicks and exploration. Give them a narrative, and a simple journey.

One of the speakers during the event was Giles Wilson, creative director at Harpoon Productions, and former editor of the BBC News Magazine.

He shared his "autocrat's rules for the web" when delivering visual storytelling, and stressed how these readers want control and a clear journey through the narrative.

"Don’t make me click about the page. If you insist that I have to make more than one click, don’t make me move my mouse as well. I want all my clicks in the same place. Got that? The most I will do for you is scroll"

Giles Wilson, Harpoon Productions
Layer media to break down detail as the reader scrolls. And use media and interactivity with purpose.

Where possible, keep interactivity part of the reader's top-to-bottom scrolling through the story.

This mirrors the above point on not requiring your reader to click around the screen to engage - keep it simple and bring in extra layers based on your reader's engagement with the overall narrative.

See how BBC News highlights members of the 1998 World Cup French football team as the reader scrolls in France: Fear, Faith and Football, or how the Great Ormond Street Hospital Charity delivers a moving timeline as the reader scrolls through the story of its history in GOSH at 165.

This feels integrated, ensures a consistent flow to the story that keeps readers in control, and is therefore more likely to keep them scrolling to the end.

When combined, text and media should add to the other, but also stand alone. Don’t repeat in text what the media already shows.

This was a point made by Giles Wilson during the event, as part of a discussion about how best to bring together multimedia in a coherent and engaging way.

Each element of your story plays an important role in engaging the reader, and where you combine mediums they should be bringing something extra to the other. If not, they may simply be surplus and it's time to get stricter with what makes the cut.

Give readers something different on digital.

Visual storytelling existed before the advent of the digital age, but digital provides the opportunity to create entirely new experiences for your audience.

Therefore, it would be a mistake to limit yourself to merely translating print stories to digital stories.

At the event we heard from FourFourTwo's global editor-in-chief David Hall about the brand's World Cup campaign in 2014, which saw a pre-event guide created in both print and online.

But a key starting point was that the print product and digital product were to be very different things. One would compliment and help drive traffic to the other, but they would stand alone as experiences - each designed with their own platform in mind.

Online, the team created a multi-page guide, including stories on each qualifying team and additional features, using visual storytelling to deliver a rich, high-quality package of narratives. The stories included creative scroll-based interactives to break down data and showcase the project sponsor – Nike's - new boots.

The results included 1.7 million impressions, 124,000 click-throughs to Nike. And the team went on to create a similar project again with Nike for the 2016 Euros.

Visual storytelling is not just a tool for editorial to deploy. It presents a big, and valuable opportunity for commercial teams too.

Engagement is not just a key measure of success for newsrooms looking for ways to connect readers with storytelling – it is also increasingly the metric of success in the advertising and marketing world.

And visual storytelling can be a powerful way to bring products to life, break down services, communicate brand activities and compel potential customers to engage.

Sponsored stories is just part of this opportunity. See Business Insider address how 'The way we work is changing', in a beautiful story sponsored by Oracle, or The Tab assess how Loughborough built the most successful uni sports team in history, in a story sponsored by Unilever.

In this case study, the Telegraph explains that the quality of the end stories created with Shorthand is appealing across the board.

"The premium look of the Shorthand stories that we have — which is reserved for special content and does raise the bar in terms of the design and the feel of everything — means it's been more attractive to advertisers, which has been another really positive benefit.”

This is also echoed at Norwegian outlet VG, which also uses Shorthand for sponsored projects. This case study highlights how "all signs suggest their use of Shorthand delivers a 'boost' to their measures of engagement, namely time on site and scroll length."

On average, dwell time increases four to ten times when compared to engagement with standard formats. That moves engagement from a matter of seconds, to many minutes, as highlighted on Twitter by Skift CEO and founder Rafat Ali:

And that is not just a powerful result for editorial teams, it is also a compelling sell for brands keen to capture the attention of their next customer, while the savings on cost and time by using Shorthand helps widen the publisher's usual margins for this sort of work.

Put multimedia planning at the top of your workflow, not stitched onto the end.

Too often, multimedia and/or interactivity becomes an afterthought. When a story is written, the absence of visual activity in the narrative may not become clear until later on, and a mission is undertaken to retrofit some multimedia to the story.

True visual storytelling places the layout and treatment at the heart and start of things – second only to the actual story itself.

So at the beginning of a project, everyone should come together – writers, editors, photographers, video journalists, data journalists – to get into the detail of the story, understand the resources available, and consider how best to tell the story across media.

Only then should anyone in that team embark on gathering the materials, and writing the text.

Above all – it's about the story.

As with any treatment decision, there is no tool that can take away the need for a great story at the heart of any of these projects. And that's the first answer to the question "what works?"

Beyond that, the above tips are certainly helpful for crafting the best delivery of that story. But there will always remain the need for a focused narrative, good storytelling and a focused editorial eye to know when a story will be best told with a visual application.

Visual storytelling is not a magic wand, that waved over any kind of narrative will transform it into a compelling experience.

Instead visual storytelling is a way to help great stories have even more impact.

Find that story, then consider how multimedia can bring it to life, and you're on your way to creating something special for your online readers.