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Persuasive Visuals

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Learn what goes into creating visuals that are not just “pictures” but tell stories.

Learn what goes into creating visuals that are not just “pictures” but tell stories.

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This chapter is from the book

AN IMAGE DOESN’T EXIST IN A VACUUM. Understanding an image involves seeing the content, the environment, and the composition and placement of the image. In other words, every image is seen in the context of everything around it—and around us. The best images are not just “pictures”; they tell stories, like Figure 2.1.


FIGURE 2.1 Every image tells a story. Just like a story, the more focused the image, the more powerful story it tells. (Image Credit:

Like any good story, an image improves when you think about:

  • squ.jpg   What you want to say

  • squ.jpg   Who you are saying it to

  • squ.jpg   What you want them to do after you say it

A good plan makes for good pictures.

You tell a funny story differently from a ghost story. A story told to children has different pacing than a story told to adults. Explaining a technical subject to people who are familiar with the subject is different from explaining it to people who are unfamiliar with it.

Not all of us are born storytellers, but all of us can improve with practice. Learning the “rules” of effective visual storytelling will also help. While “rules were made to be broken” remains true, still, to break the rules, you first need to know what those rules are.

What happens if you don’t follow the rules? Well, most likely, no one would yell at you. No one would get hurt. No laws would be broken. Still, your message may lack impact and may not register with your audience. Given all the time and effort it took to create your image in the first place, can you really afford to overlook anything that might improve your results?

My core idea is that, as creators of visual messages, we are in control of where the viewer’s eye looks within an image, the information the image delivers, and the emotion it evokes. By using these rules, we magnify the impact our visuals have on an audience. In this chapter, I’ll illustrate the key visual concepts that we’ll spend the rest of the book putting into practice.

Visual Literacy

Whether you are shooting photographs, designing motion graphics, or creating presentation slides, the image you create is what the audience sees. In other words, the image represents the point of view of the audience.

While this seems self-evident, it is hard to remember that when you change the position, the framing, or the content in front of the camera, what you are actually doing is changing what the audience sees and their perception of your message. When you move the camera, you are dragging the audience right along with you.

The quote from Norman Hollyn that started this chapter is one of my favorites. Norman was a highly talented film editor, as well as a professor at the USC School for Cinematic Arts. He and I spent four years coproducing and hosting the 32-part web series 2 Reel Guys (, which we described as “film school for filmmakers who didn’t go to film school.” Working with Norman as we wrote the scripts, then hosted each episode, was a deep-dive into the principles of filmmaking. My strengths are in media and technology; his were in storytelling and editing. What I learned from working with Norman was that the best visual media—even still images—tells a story. As communicators, our job is to figure out what that story is and the best way to tell it.

As an audience, we respond to these visual techniques without understanding why we respond the way we do. Very little in this chapter will be new to a filmmaker or graphic designer—they’ve been using these techniques for decades. However, what’s important is that the rest of us don’t know these techniques.

Let’s set the scene by defining four key terms:

  • squ.jpg Visual literacy

  • squ.jpg Controlling the viewer’s eye

  • squ.jpg Composition

  • squ.jpg Frame

Visual literacy. The term “visual literacy” was first coined in 1969 by John Debes, who founded the International Visual Literacy Association. The basic definition is: “The ability to read, write, and create visual images. It is a concept that relates to art and design, but it also has much wider applications. Visual literacy is about language, communication, and interaction. Visual media is a linguistic tool with which we communicate, exchange ideas, and navigate our complex world.”1

Controlling the viewer’s eye. Because each image tells a story, as communicators we need to make sure that the story the audience perceives is the story we are telling. Norman called this “manipulating” the viewer. I call it “guiding.” Either way, we need to control the eye and mind of the viewer as much as we can to make our message as powerful as possible. Never cede control of your message to the viewer. Over the course of this book, you’ll learn a wide variety of techniques to control your message.

Composition. This is the process of designing the content and technical aspects of an image. This could be as simple as taking a quick snapshot or as complex as shooting a scene for a major motion picture. Composition determines the choice and arrangement of the elements that go into creating an image. (Sometimes it is more important to decide what to leave out than what to put in.)

Frame. In real life, when we look around, we see everything all at once: left/right/up/down, close-up, and far away. But, when we look at any digital image, whether a video or still, we see it through a frame, an arbitrary boundary that determines the edges of the image.

What’s truly important about the frame is that our brain assumes the edges of the frame are the limit of what is actually “there.” The brain jumps to the conclusion that the frame represents the entirety of an image. Even though that’s clearly not true, this false conclusion is impossible to resist. An actor, standing on the set, can easily see things outside the frame. For example, the camera, the crew behind the camera, the set and the lights above the set, the discarded props and costumes, and even actors—such as that blood-thirsty monster—that haven’t appeared on set yet. But to our eyes, looking at the image, all we see is what’s in the frame.

Because of the frame, the brain imposes artificial limits on the image. Those brain-imposed limits allow us, as communicators, to manipulate images to control the content, emotion, composition, and, ultimately, the story that each image tells. In reality, the heroine is not being attacked by the evil monster, but it is impossible to tell our brains that. The frame is a powerful instrument of persuasion.

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