The Basics of Visual Storytelling


“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” —Ira Glass

A few months back I had the chance to present The Power of Visual Storytelling at the Colorado Non-profit Association in Denver. A number of staff from a variety of non-profits participated.

A few weeks after the presentation I received an e-mail from one of the attendees whether I would be interested in writing an article for the Grant Managers Network newsletter, GMNInsight. GMN is comprised of philanthropy professionals across the United States with the mission to improve grantmaking by advancing the knowledge, skills, and abilities of grants management professionals and leading grantmakers to adopt and incorporate effective practices that benefit the philanthropic community.  The newsletter for the organization, GMNIsight, focuses each issue on a topic relevant to the industry.

It turns out that the next GMNInsight will focus on storytelling. Nikki Powell, the editor of the newsletter thought it would be valuable to offer some insights on visual storytelling, and I was thrilled by the invitation. Nikki informed me that grantmakers often find themselves in unique situations when it comes to finding and telling stories since they are often not the ones working on the front lines and providing the direct services.

The link to the full article will be available in my next blog.

Until then, I am excited to share some of my resources with you and the readers of GMNInsight here:


Tips for Getting Started With Visual Storytelling

To move people we must connect with their emotions. And the way to connect with people on an emotional level is through visuals…the right visuals matched with the right message. Seeing is, indeed believing.

1—SLOW DOWN and pay attention

  • Carve out some time to think about the stories you would want to tell. Make it fun! Meet with your staff to hear the stories they want to tell. Ask staff to block out time and keep a log of potential stories to be told.
  • Start small and add on.
  • Focus on one person or one aspect (clients/volunteers/funders) at a time.
  • Develop the larger story and values of your agency over time.
  • Tell a simple truth and make it personal.

2—Know your audience

  • Who is your target audience?
  • Who do you want to communicate your message to?
  • Ask, “Would this message resonate with my target audience?”
  • Whose hearts and minds do you need to win over?

3—Make a plan

  • Think about the message you want to communicate.
  • What do you want your audience to remember?
  • Decide what channels you will use to tell this story and what your call to action is.
  • Meet with your staff to hear the stories they want to tell.
  • Consider whom you may interview.
  • Ask staff to block out time and keep a log of potential stories to be told. Create a culture of storytelling and sharing. 

4—Start small

  • Start small and add on.
  • Focus on one person (client, volunteer, funder) or aspect at a time. Develop the larger story of your agency over time.
  • Tell a simple truth and make it personal.

5—Know the four principles of effective imagery

  • Whether your staff is taking photos or you hire a photographer, understand the essentials of effective imagery: being authentic, exciting the senses, evoking a familiar archetype, and being relevant.

6—First impressions matter

  • Invest the most in the first picture your audience sees, and in overall design quality.
  • Think of the first picture your audience might see in any communication you develop as the “hook.”
  • Make sure you are hooking the emotion you want to evoke.

7—Include text in your pictures

  • Pictures and text reinforce one another.
  • Add captions into the pictures so that they can travel together throughout the social web.

8—Make sure your images match your message

  • Our brains are designed to heed visual cues, so it’s critical photos carry the message we’re trying to send.
  • If your visuals send one message and your words send another you create ‘a disconnect’ in your audience’s mind.

9—Choose genuine verses generic

  • We recognize authenticity when we see it.
  • Take candid photos of the people you serve and the places where you work.
  • People can tell if your photos are stock or real.

10—Be diligent to take good photos/or hire a photographer

  • It will be difficult to use images effectively if you are scrambling to find pictures every time you need them.
  • The most effective photos will reflect the work you do on the front lines.
  • Commit yourself to refreshing your photos often.
  • If you are looking for free, legal-to-use photos on the Internet, the Creative Commons is the place to go.
  • Hiring a professional photographer or videographer can have a measurable effect on brand perception, raising your supporters’ level of emotional connection and engagement.
  • Budget for photography and video like you would for website and other design work.
  • High quality design without high quality visuals is a waste of money.
  • Websites like Flickr and Vimeo are excellent resources for archiving and cataloging your image collections.

11—People relate to people in pictures.

  • Choose your subjects carefully.
  • Common ground between your cause and your audience can quickly be established through pictures of people.
  • People, people, people! We cannot reinforce this point enough.
  • Treat your subjects with dignity, and showcase their hope to generate the same feeling on the viewers end.


Visual Storytelling Plan Checklist



  • Think about the specific stories that could be told. Examples include: our founding, our focus, our impact, our people or our strengths. What story makes the most sense to share this message?
  • What message(s) do you want to communicate? What do you want the audience to remember? What is the high-level point you are trying to communicate?
  • Who is your audience? Who do you want to communicate your message to? Ask, “Would this message resonate with my target audience?” Whose hearts and minds do you need to win over (elected officials, donors, volunteers, etc.)?
  • What are the goals your story is supporting? Launching a new campaign? Marketing a new product?
  • What are the specific channels you want to use to tell this story? Website, direct mailer, social media, fundraising gala? Consider focusing on one so you do your best with that.
  • What is your call to action? What do you want the audience to do?
  • What is your budget for this story?
  • Who will be producing the story? In-house or outside expert?



  • Decide on an effective character—keep the number of characters to a minimum.
  • Resist the temptation to have the organization be the main character.
  • Think about what universal needs your characters possess (like safety, acceptance, dignity) as these intangible needs are understood by us all and relatable.
  • Consider using the voices of others to tell the character’s story (family, friends, staff).
  • Choose a character that is willing to recall specific details; is comfortable being recorded/photographed; has a report with the staff or individuals interviewing.
  • Obtain written permission—here is a template you could use (


  • Decide on a beginning, middle and end
  • Consider the basic story structure—“hero’s journey/challenge plot”
  • Introduce character, follow her as she faces a series of barriers to achieving her goals, she encounters a climax situation (maybe the nonprofit is introduced), after she gets to a resolution with a goal fulfilled.
  • Consider other variations:
  • Change up the start of the story-in the past, future, or present day
  • Change the sequencing-use flash backs or flash forwards
  • Change the pacing-consider how quickly you will get to the action
  • Consider no ending and leave it unresolved
  • Consider acknowledging missteps on the part of the organization


  • Tell the story from your character’s point of view not the organization’s
  • Let people speak for themselves-don’t use industry jargon
  • Remember to ‘show not tell’ the story by focusing on the details
  • Decide what emotion do you want to reveal
  • Think about target audiences when selecting the people in your photos and video. Will they trust, identify with, and relate to these characters?


  • Make a list of who needs to be interviewed—clients, staff, grantors
  • Make a list of questions for the interview
  • Keep the questions short and open ended
  • Ask throw away questions (about the weather, what they did over the weekend) to build rapport
  • Begin questions with verbs like describe, explain or tell
  • Ask for memories and follow up with questions that incorporate the five senses
  • More is better, this may be your only interview
  • Create a comfortable atmosphere-consider someone who has a relationship with the subject to be the interviewer


  • Lead with your hook-the thing that captures your audience’s attention
  • Change the content around to reveal that first
  • The audience should be able to answer… Whose story is it? What’s happening? What’s at stake?


  • Consider the types of images to collect: Authentic, Culturally relevant, Sensory, Archetype.
  • Choose authentic and original images rather than stock.
  • What is the first impression you want to create with your audience, or what is the hook? Select your lead photo accordingly.
  • Gather lots of ‘b-roll’ or detail images to tell the story.
  • Consider what captions will reinforce and elaborate on your visual message.
  • Test to ensure the images chosen resonate with your audience.
  • Make sure to get photo releases and give credit where it is due.


Visual Storytelling Resources


Resources to consider when creating your visual stories: Mashup sites—Animoto, Haiku Deck Editor, Rock You, Slide, Stupeflix all offer a chance to add images, song, and words to create a compelling slideshow

See3 Communications and Storytellers for Good are great sites to check out and get inspired by other non-profit visual storytelling examples.

Soundslides—Here you can create a photo and audio slideshow that is highly visual and impactful.

YouTube—A free ‘call to action’ overlay can be added to your videos

Case Studies:

These examples of visual storytelling can help you get inspired. You’ll see how effective it is to personally feel the message in creative and engaging ways.

At the Animoto  website that showcases videos created for causes, the video for the American Cancer Society is particularly compelling, but you can view the projects of other non-profits as well.

A Glimmer of Hope has a simple but visually effective website.

South Hill Community has a remarkable visual sense of telling its story on this website.

Volunteers of America

Waiting for Death




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Photographing what matters

I Wonder What it is Like to Be Dyslexic is the title of a new book I just bought.  It was a Kick-starter project that I could not pass up. Done by a college age student in London this book is a beautiful typographic creation. It is a design led experience of what it feels like to struggle with reading. I found this book during a late night research frenzy. It is one of my inspirations as I work towards a proposal for an engagement campaign to help raise awareness about dyslexia by sharing the stories of young students with dyslexia.

I want to incorporate the experience of frustration and this book was a great example of how to do that.  I see the frustration my son feels. I see how he avoids reading so he does not have to feel frustrated. What does that feel like to struggle with every letter, every sound? What does it feel like when reading is NOT automatic? 80% of us don’t think about it, because we don’t have to. But 1 in 5 are frustrated everyday to some extent when they wrestle with words. I want others to experience this challenge so a greater understanding is gained and then change can occur.

In early December I will be pitching my idea to Hillside School, a private program for kids with dyslexia. My goal is to photograph and interview 20 or more students, boys and girls, with dyslexia. I want to give them an opportunity to tell their story–their strengths and struggles in their world, in their words. I want them to see the power of story telling. Together images and text will offer the viewer a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while, in the hopes that we can further the dyslexia movement and get the right kind of approach in the schools to educate ALL of our students.

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The power of story

  1. a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence.

My son has dyslexia. I can say that. It is harder for him to say that. My son feels shame by this knowledge. He sees this condition or difference as a strike against him. One of three things that causes him suffering. Sometimes he talks about the other two but that is another post. Just today he shared with me that he sees some of the other kids in his school (a private one for kids with dyslexia) as odd or “creepy.” The way they look or act makes him uncomfortable and he sees himself in them. He sees them as a reflection of himself. And he does not like this reflection. Therefore he is pushing away or choosing to put down or make fun of some of these kids. He is struggling to make sense of it all.

As a mother watching this all unfold I find it amazing how self aware my son is. I am in awe of this awareness at 9. He is able to articulate and talk about how he does not like his own dyslexia and how he does not like being around others that are like him. So how do I help him feel less shame and self doubt? For now, I advocate and listen and encourage and embrace and love. That is what I can do for my son as a mom. But I can do more. As an artist I can tell his story. I can tell others stories that are like his. I can use my creative energy to educate about dyslexia. I can use my creative energy to empower these young struggling boys and girls to embrace their story and their uniqueness. I can use my creative energy to help others understand the extra work these kids endure just trying to process language.

Sometime this winter I will begin working with the students at Hillside School to develop a photo/voice project that gives shape to the story of dyslexia. Stay tuned!



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Luck happens when…

It is almost three weeks from the unveiling of the Lents Grown Storyyard project. This unveiling happened on a hot summer night where community members, friends and family gathered to celebrate in the collaboration that will live at 88th and SE Foster for a year and a half. What an honor it was to work on this project where so many dedicated partners came together to celebrate the unique people that make up the fabric of life in Lents.  This was a dream come true for me to work on a project where creativity, community and collaboration collide. It is the type of synergy I welcome with open arms and excitement.

One person, Julie Keefe, Portland’s Creative Laurette and one of my inspirations, was not able to join in the opening night festivities so I invited her to view the installation a week later. It was during our walk around the space that Julie asked me how this all came to be. I was explaining that some of it was luck or serendipitous.  She gracefully shared with me that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” She was right. This did not drop out of the sky but instead came together after much time observing a place, connecting with key people, sharing my dream with others and being patient as all the parts came together at the right time. Thanks for imparting such valuable perspective Julie, at a time when I struggle to convince myself that this kind of work can be done again somewhere else. This kind of luck happens and luck can happen again, wether I live in Oregon or Colorado!

News stories covering the Story Yard:

PDC short film Lents Grown Story Yard

Oregonian Story Yard’ art park enlivens vacant SE Portland lot while PDC seeks permanent development

Portland Business Journal Temporary art installation open in Lents

Foster United Pop-Up Public Plaza comes to Lents 

PDC Lents Grown” Story Yard installation open Monday, August 18th

Pro Photo Supply Community Project- Lents Grown Story Yard


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Feeling exposed

For the past several weeks I have been engrossed by my current project–Lents Grown Storyyard. I have spent many hours wrestling with how I want to shoot the series of images that are to capture the uniqueness of 12 small business owners and farmers market vendors in the outer southeast neighborhood of Lents. It is considered the most diverse neighborhood in Portland. This of course is all relative as we are speaking about one of the whitest cities. However, I have been able to meet Russian, Fijian, Vietnamese, Greek, Mexican and African American small business owners who show so much dedication and integrity.

So, I feel a responsibility to show them well-reveal their best side and share with the general public their gifts as they provide great service to the neighborhood. Thus, I am feeling a bit of fear arising as these will become part of a large scale public installation in less than a month. When I decided to be all in with photography I felt why not. Why not take the risk? Why not put my work out there? Why continue to think about it and hope for it without DOING IT?  Photography is what makes me happy. It is how I express myself creatively and connect with people I would not otherwise have the chance. I am finally doing a project that I want to do and getting paid for it and yet I am feeling scared and even questioning if it is all worth it. It is the vulnerability of it all that is creeping in. Will others like the images? Will others hate the images? Will others judge? Could I have done better?

Gretchin Rubin writes in Happier at Home “the imperfect book that gets published is better than the perfect book that never leaves my computer” which is helpful wisdom to embrace right now. My work is better out in the face of the public than sitting somewhere deep inside of me. I am in a better place, exposing my work (perfect or not) and myself than doing nothing. This I must embrace and trust. Whatever the response is I will grow from it, learn from it and evolve from it into a better artist.


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