The moment you open this Grantland story (R.I.P.) about Jeff Henry, water slide pioneer, you’re shooting down Henry’s 17-story creation, the largest water slide in the world, and into the narrative.
Take note. What better way to start an article on water parks than to use a visual to give every reader a taste of the very environment central to this story. And it’s not just the first image.
The story serves up photos and animations throughout that frame the characters, the evolution of water park design, and the art of the water slide, pulling you deeper into the narrative by engaging and informing. It’s hard to click out to another page. Buzzfeed took it a step further, publishing a piece on the featured water slide almost exclusively through images.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I found a post attempting to educate readers on the process of using visual content to tell great stories. Guess what this story was missing. And no, the Scrabble-style image doesn’t count – it doesn’t support the story and won’t engage the audience. It’s just a word illustrated in blocks.
But I’m not going to reiterate how much pictures and video boost traffic, engagement, and readership. The question is not whether to use multimedia. The question is what kind of visual content should you use?
What are your options and what kind of image or visual will capture your readers’ attention, support your content, and intrigue media? Here are a few ideas from some of the best content the media is publishing today.
Images can tell a story. But make them good.
MIT’s Technology Review showed the process behind making spider silk, a material that naturally lends itself to storytelling, almost entirely through big, bright images and short captions. The article gives readers a high resolution tour of the facility, turning industrial equipment into art, requiring just a few words to orient readers to the process.
A story from Motherboard on visualizing big data keeps hitting you with big images as well. The KPMG data observatory the article describes is “a circular wall of flickering screens that transforms data into images.” But only through the visuals do readers get a true sense of the scale and potential of those screens. What facilities or equipment do you have that are visually appealing and are relevant to the story you’re trying to tell? What’s the best camera to capture it? The one you have with you. Today, we all have a camera in our pocket to capture a visual that can tell a story.
GIF your content life, or give it death
Gizmodo has been using a lot of GIFs in its stories, including a piece on Apple making superstrong gold for smart watches. The GIFs are short but mesmerizing, depicting in just a few seconds a process that most readers will never see in person and words would never do justice. They tell a more complete story than a static image, and convey enough information that a full video is unnecessary. GIFs can be creative and tasteful, and you can also add a lot of personality and humor to the content.
GIFs are among the most shared pieces of content, and making them just got easier: Tumblr just announced a new GIF maker for mobile devices. TechCrunch, unlike other media, covered that news by adding a number of GIFs into its story to illustrate the potential of this new tool.
Think about what processes, tests, or demonstrations you could depict in just a few seconds of looping content to better connect your narrative with your audience.
Dress up your data
Charts are not typically what people think about when they hear the words “compelling image.” But charts that effectively illustrate data or a trend can do the heavy lifting for a piece of content. In just three graphs, Technology Review told a whole story about the trajectory of the global population. The only text needed was a few captions to add context to the visuals. It works because each graph builds on the one before it, using a variety of charts – line, area, bar – to show not only what is happening but why. “Data visualization” can refer to a simple chart or graph, but more creative designs for representing data have become wildly popular. They come in all shapes and sizes, and can add a unique element of captivating beauty to draw readers in to information that might otherwise be too dry.
Infographics are dead. Long live infographics.
As much as charts and graphs can help tell a story, infographics offer a more creative way to represent data. While we’re seeing fewer infographics overall lately compared to a few years ago, brands and media are rethinking the medium to tell stories using other elements.
Adweek recently published an infographic on marketing to millennials that integrated tweets and Instagram photos. The result illustrates different customer profiles using the platforms marketers will need to reach those buyers.
The best infographics tell a single story and the form fits the material. Twitter and Instagram make sense in a millennial-focused infographic. What visuals, when broken down and explained, could convey your story?
But video is king
Wired and Sports Illustrated recently teamed up to depict the NFL stadium of the future. They use aerial and ground footage, graphics and animations, and interviews with architects and designers to show how future possibilities diverge from the stadiums we know today.
How could you use video to give your audience a peek into the future of your own industry?
Get started with visual storytelling
Start exploring these five types of visuals, keeping an eye on what the media publishes. Give readers a first-hand look at something they wouldn’t normally see, and you can inspire awe, amazement, and engagement.