Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Elements of nonprofit storytelling: Visual theories for delivering stories on websites and print media

By Cal Brackin

Can I have three seconds of your time? What about five seconds of your time? Even a two second difference seems like a big investment and if I haven’t captured your attention by now you are probably ready to move on and if you move on, how can I tell you my story?

I developed these visual storytelling techniques while serving in the nonprofit world in 2010 as a marketing and outreach volunteer for Mercy Corps Northwest. During my six months of volunteering, I was editing my first book, The Unpredictable Course of Passion, an illustrated-journal of a five-month trip in South America. When people looked through my book, I noticed that certain images gained more immediate attention while other images worked better with text. I used these ideas in the stories I created for Mercy Corps Northwest and found that they improved my nonprofit storytelling. All of the images featured are my own illustrations and most featured are from my first book and third book, Tom, which is a life history about my grandfather’s life. Each point has a deeper reasoning, but for this article I’ll deliver the essentials.

The first step to storytelling is capturing your audience’s attention.

If a nonprofit's message doesn’t deliver something immediately, people will lose interest and move on to another message. Think about people browsing in a bookstore or a coffee shop with art hanging up. Oftentimes, they will do a “slow walk” and bypass the stories contained within the books or the deeper messages of the art until that special something or a, high value image, catches their eye and they stop to dig deeper into the story.

High value images:
1.     People doing unusual things (body positions, actions, emotions)
2.     People readers can emotionally connect to.
3.     A person in conflict or coexistence with another person or object.
4.     A simplified object with one tone and balanced.  

Examples for number (2):

The second step to storytelling is to build the context.

The amount of text can increase, but succinct narratives are still good to keep in mind and using, context images, should deliver who, what, and when ideas.

Context images:
1.     Important structures like buildings, landmarks, or vehicles.
2.     A scene with many points of focus like a busy street or crowd of people.
3.     A multi-dimensional scene (foreground, mid, and background).
4.     A map.

Examples for number (1) and (2):


The third step to storytelling is filling in the story.

When you’ve successfully captured your audience you can deliver more detailed narratives that are longer and satisfy the reason why your message is important.  The images that help to fill in that story are, narrative images.

Narrative images:

1.     Close-up of objects.
2.     Subjects that teach us a lesson like a graph or chart.
3.     A sequence of related images.
4.     An animal or vegetation (flowers).
5.     A landscape shot.
6.     A scene depicting sameness or vast difference.
7.     An unusual or artistic style of image.

Example of number (3) and (5):

Look at the websites of some nonprofits and see if these trends fit and look at what is working and what could be better. Is there a trend to the images that are used to “capture” the audience’s attention, build on the text, or different styles of images throughout the narratives?


  1. Wonderful use of art to tell your story to us! You really made me think about how the images and text work together to connect with the audience/reader. When the audience is "captured", what does that make possible for the organization's ability to move their mission forward?

  2. Nancy,
    Thanks for the comments and question. When the audience is totally, "captured" and if I understand your question correctly, meaning that they've stuck around through all of the steps of delivering visual and textual messages, then you can work toward audience participation. The aims of telling stories is not only to share messages, but inspire people to action. You want people to become advocates, donors, and volunteers in order to have more participants be involved in moving your mission forward.

  3. Cal,
    Fantastic Blog! Thanks for sharing all your personal experinces and your artistic examples--they really help set the stage and "tell the story"!
    Great work--I'm off to the library to get "Tom",

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