The Anatomy of the Visual Narrative

businesspeople engaged in tug-o-war|two businessmen engaged in tug-o-war

It is often said that in today’s Instagram world visual communication has become our lingua franca and that Twitter’s 280-character limit is proof that the fewer words the better. It can be easy to equate images with storytelling, but as experts like Walt Disney knew from the beginning, they are not the same. Visual storytelling uses imagery the way builders use wood. And the best marketers know the structure of story still applies if they are to turn that raw wood into a beautiful house.

As consultants with a specialty in diagnosing the anatomy of visual narrative, over the years we have seen a compression of the time brands have to share their stories. Yes, visuals can capture attention—that doorway that any message must first walk through if it is ever to be delivered. But the most successful ads are those that not only grab the eye but also the mind. And, in those brief opening seconds, entice with the most wonderful of invitations: let me tell you a story.

The human mind craves story. As Robert McKee, the screenwriting guru has said, ‘stories are equipment for living’.

They are how people learn best, as the finest history teachers and documentary filmmakers have discovered. The mind filters for relevant information and does it beneath consciousness—a function that Daniel Kahnaman refers to in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, as a System 1 process. Our minds make the decision of what to keep and what to eliminate without taking a vote from the rational mind. And we have seen this in action time and time again when it comes to visual communication.

When we diagnose the potential success of a brand message, it is this System 1 that we query. 

“We are not the least bit interested in what the mind is seeing; we are only interested in what the mind is keeping.

Because, as Kahnaman points out, it is memory that makes our future decisions, including those of brand choice.

At the heart of all stories is emotion, and emotional storytelling has structures. This has been written about extensively by those who explore what motifs are common in various story genres, from Westerns to horror films. It is emotions that give meaning to stories, and all creatives know this, which is why advertising does not rely on lists of attributes or product features. When we work with clients, therefore, we must examine both the sorting process and what emotional structure the ad is relying on.

It is the illumination of this process of mental filtering where we see visual storytelling’s success or failure. This is an example of a now well-known ad where not a word is spoken. It is considered by many to be the best ad ever run during the Super Bowl, and in our diagnosis is the anatomy of this visual narrative—The Force, from Volkswagen:


As we examine what the collective mind of the audience kept from this ad film after forgetting time, we see the building blocks of successful narrative structure emerge. A story is set up immediately, as the continuous rise in image recall demonstrates. The genius of this one-minute film is that, like all great stories, conflict is introduced almost immediately. Little Darth is on a mission, thwarted until the father enables resolution through the VW.

While the creative team used other devices, such as calling on the iconic music and the mythology of the father that was integral to the Star Wars saga, when it comes to the actual anatomy of the visual narrative, the team called on the principles of story, and did not simply rely on iconic imagery alone. See the full report with more detail here.

As brands increasingly embrace the power of visual storytelling, it is vitally important to not become over-reliant on imagery alone or simply measure what was seen. Illuminating the filtering process of the System 1 mind and the story’s emotional structure will make us better storytellers, and more successful brands.


Key Takeaways

  • Embracing the power of visual storytelling is a powerful tool in affecting brand choice in the future. 
  • The most successful ads are those that not only grab the eye but also the mind.
  • Understanding a story’s emotional structure makes us better storytellers and more successful brands.