Six Visual Storytelling Elements to Say Less and Show More in Your Learning Experiences

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I remember my first digital camera. It was a silver Kodak EasyShare.

Small – pocket-sized. A little rope loop on one corner for on-the-go memory-making.

That little camera saw me through 3 years of high school, a year living abroad in Germany, and barely survived my first year at university. This was back when we would upload albums of 120 photos – nothing was curated, and everything had to have a filter, each more terrible than the last.

What a time to be alive.

In time, my little Kodak gave way to a grown-up Canon DSLR, and since then I’ve leaned into the tech of a good mobile phone camera.

I take pictures almost every day. Honestly, on many occasions, I’ve stopped and thought about why I take so many photos. Am I unable to ‘live in the moment’ and just be present?

No, that’s not it.

For me, it’s about the moment. The emotions, the memories, the people I’m with, the beauty I’m perceiving, the experience. It’s because of the moment that I want to immortalize it. On a Sunday evening, I curate my photos to tell a story, picking up and spinning the golden thread of the week that was.

A Picture Speaks A Thousand Words

Over time, I’ve honed my photography skills. I’ve grown in confidence and found my visual voice, and it’s a hobby I’m passionate about. So, if a picture speaks a thousand words, how am I using those words? What is my viewer getting from it, and what am I trying to say?

My goal is always to bring my viewer into the moment. The same way I want to look at a photo I took, and instantly be transported back to the moment and emotions… I want to share that.

Evocative, emotional, nostalgic, and a little bit of the magic of every day – that is what I try to inject into my pictures.

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Museum Day – 2023

In an age where information is everywhere, attention spans are fleeting, and instant gratification is expected, visual storytelling is a compelling power tool for engaging learners and conveying complex concepts.

In the same way a carefully composed photograph captures the essence of a moment and stirs emotions, being able to harness visual storytelling can create immersive and memorable learning experiences.

Show Me A Story

Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass. – Anton Chekhov

As someone who writes as a major part of my day job, this is something that takes some effort – it’s so tempting to explain everything with words. It’s easy because the words are right there and you, as the writer, have more control over what the reader is getting from your work.

But that’s not necessarily best for the learner.

What if we think of visual storytelling as a bridge between information and understanding, memory and emotion?

When we use it to break down complex problems and find visual ways to present information, we enable learners to visualize abstract ideas and create mental connections. And what happens when learners “get it?” They’re motivated to engage and learn more.

For example, a physics lesson on gravitational forces could be more effectively conveyed through an animated video of falling objects, rather than a lengthy textual explanation.

We should be leveraging visual storytelling to challenge traditional teaching methods by emphasizing visuals to convey information, emotions, and narratives.

I think about how every photograph I share holds a story, a memory, and an emotion. In the same vein, rather than relying solely on textual explanations, visual storytelling enables learners to engage more deeply, helping them connect with content on both intellectual and emotional levels.

I love how David JP Phillips talks about the science of storytelling.


Good stories induce:

  1. Dopamine for motivation and memory.
  2. Oxytocin for empathy.
  3. Endorphins for the feel good.

Throw visuals into the mix, and you have emotional buy-in and an engaged learner.

As we hone our storytelling skills, we’re looking at a future where learning transcends the boundaries of text and enters a realm where stories are not just told but lived and experienced.

Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution — more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.
Lisa Cron

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Canva GIF, created by Sarah Marnewick

From Pixels to Learning

You could probably tell a pretty accurate story about my life by looking at my photographs – because of what I choose to capture, and what I choose to share. My story is carefully curated and the viewer can interpret meaning within that.

The power of visual storytelling lies in a thoughtful, intentional approach. Balancing visuals and text is essential if you want to avoid overwhelming learners or diluting the learning. The challenge is curating the right visual tools to align with your learning objectives and content, and have the biggest impact.

At Curious Lion, we’ve put these tools to the test in the work we do to up our visual storytelling game:

  • Interactive Scenarios: Scenarios allow learners to navigate through a simulated environment. Instead of boring descriptions, learners interact with graphical representations of peers, tools, and challenges. This contextualizes learning and cultivates decision-making skills.
  • Infographics and Data Visualization: Complex data can be daunting. With engaging infographics and data visualizations, you can take intricate concepts and simplify and transform them into visual narratives that facilitate understanding.
  • Character Journeys: Introduce relatable characters with journeys that mirror the learners’ challenges and triumphs. Think of an athlete being coached on nutrition by a virtual nutrition coach. As learners follow their narratives, they absorb information and skills in a way that echoes real life.
  • Videos: Explain a process and show how it is carried out, or describe more conceptual content by playing it out on screen.
  • GIFs: Quick, short, punchy, and the perfect vehicle for displaying simple processes, lists, or terminology.
  • Gamification: Use points, badges, and leaderboards as visual cues that tap into learners’ competitive spirit and encourage them to achieve higher levels of mastery.

The results we’ve seen when we leverage these tools are tangible.

  • Engagement: We’ve transformed mundane content into engaging narratives that resonated with learners.
  • Retention: We’ve enhanced comprehension and made knowledge retention more effective.
  • Real-world Application: By simulating environments, we’ve offered learners a safe space to practice problem-solving.
  • Universal Accessibility: Complex ideas are communicated universally through graphics, aiding learners who struggle with language-based content.
  • Comprehension: Abstract or complex concepts have been simplified through visual representations. 
  • Creating Emotional Connections: We’ve forged connections between learners and the subject matter because emotional engagement makes learning more relatable and impactful.
  • Multimodal Learning: With visual storytelling we’ve managed to accommodate different preferences, making learning accessible to a broader audience.

We’re laying the foundations for what we know is coming. As technology continues to evolve, the future of visual storytelling in the eLearning space holds immense potential.

We’ve seen it in action: we already know the power of interactive graphics, animations, and simulations in allowing learners to actively engage with content, making their learning experiences more immersive and participatory.

On the horizon, VR and AI technologies are ready to take us a step further in offering opportunities for learners to step into virtual environments and explore concepts in a three-dimensional space.

Just imagine it: With VR, learners will be able to step back in time into historical eras, explore molecular structures, or immerse themselves in foreign cultures. We’ll be able to personalize learning journeys with AI, adapting content and visuals to individual learning styles and optimizing understanding, retention, and engagement.

The future promises a tantalizing mix of captivating visuals, interactive experiences, and adaptive learning. We’re at the precipice of next-level learning experiences – don’t get left behind!

More Than A Thousand

Whether it’s a kick-ass piece of eLearning, a creative treatment pitch, a deck for a webinar, or a curated wrap-up of the week in photos – the question is this: How are we doing everything we can to embed our visuals with our story and saying less with our words?

If we can make sure we’re doing these four things every time we design a learning experience, our visual storytelling will go to the next level:

  1. Immortalize moments
  2. Convey emotions
  3. Curate our narratives
  4. Hone our visual voice

Visual storytelling has always held a captivating power, and the ability to transcend language barriers and evoke emotions that resonate deep within us. From ancient cave paintings to modern-day cinema, as humans we’ve used visuals to communicate and share our experiences. We’re crossing a new frontier in eLearning, where the fusion of visuals and narratives can elevate educational experiences to unprecedented heights.

From Kodak to Canon to the phone in my pocket, I am a visual storyteller. I’ve seen its power firsthand. I’ve wielded it in my course creation and I feel its results daily.

For us in the eLearning world, a picture speaks a thousand words has never meant more than it does right now, and this is just the beginning.

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