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Telling Stories That People Can See

By Glynn Young, APR, Fellow PRSA, PRSA St. Louis Communications Co-Chair

I follow a number of journalism blogs and web sites – the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School, American Press Institute, Next Draft, Columbia Journalism Review, and others. One way to understand what’s important to journalists is to see what they’re talking about, what they find important, and what professional issues they’re wrestling with. 

These days, two issues stand out, across a wide array of journalism sources: trust in the media (including but not limited to “fake news”) and something that’s universally called the “pivot to video.” Journalists are keenly aware of the public’s declining trust and that a president who routinely criticizes the media is not creating a trust issue but capitalizing upon it. And journalists and their editors, particularly those in print journalism, are rushing headlong into video, or trying to figure out what a “pivot to video” actually means. 

Both of these issues have considerable roots in the impact of social media on traditional journalism. It was social media that popularized infographics, for example, and it was social media that transformed all of us into mini-movie producers. I can sit at my desktop or with my smart phone and create a video and / or broadcast live. 

Last week’s PRSA St. Louis program, co-hosted with IABC St. Louis, focused on visual storytelling – the use of video to create stories and the use of graphic storytelling. Joey Goone of Utopia Entertainment focused on video, and Laura Stanton, a former graphic artist for the Washington Post and now a partner with her husband in LaVidaCo Communications, took us on a tour of the 10 “superpowers” of visual storytelling. 

Both presentations were “show” rather than “tell.” Goone said there are three ways to use video – as highlight, as mission, and as commercial. And then he showed examples of each. Videos (when they’re well done) tell stories in a powerful way, he said. He pointed to one example his firm did – a bar mitzvah ceremony filmed so that the family would have a visual record of the boy’s father, diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. Another example shown was the story of a veteran who couldn’t afford the surgery needed for his dog, and how the Animal Protective Association stepped in to help. 

When considering video, Goone said, you always have to keep the audience in mind. Sometimes you have customers who want story-like videos of non-visual things, like working in a call center, he said. “Not everything can be captured with a lens.” 

Stanton focused on telling stories with graphics. “The power we have today as communicators is so great compared to the past,” she said. She didn’t walk the PRSA/IABC attendees through the 10 superpowers of visual storytelling, but instead had each table select one and that show what was involved. “Eye in the Sky,” for example, is mapping a story, like a walking tour map. Ideas can be mapped, too, she said. “Every story happens somewhere; locate it. Show the way.” Always focus on the visual possibilities of your story, she said. 

Particularly interested was how she showed using the same content repackaged in different graphic ways. With “Total Recall,” for example, Stanton showed how to use the same content but packaged as a straight story, a “grand journey,” an “endless cycle,” and “chase your own adventure.” 

Stanton’s book, co-written with her husband David LaGesse, is Superpowers of Visual Storytelling. (You can access the one-page Superpowers summary handout here.) 

Video and graphic approaches to telling our stories can immeasurably enhance their impact, so make sure you get the information, data, or stories you need to be effective. “If your client doesn’t have enough information for a visual presentation,” Stanton said, “ask to speak to someone who does.”

Top photo: Laura Stanton discussing the mapping of relationships. Lower photo: Joy Goone of Utopia Entertainment.

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