The Dark Side of Visual Storytelling: 5 Mistakes You Should Avoid

Visual storytelling is quickly emerging as one of the big buzz words of 2013. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, when done right, visual storytelling can add immense value to your marketing strategy or PR campaign — or it could play a key role in impressing your manager with that “visual” performance report and help you get a promotion. Communicating a message through an infographic or data visualization can reach more viewers and have a stronger impact than doing it the old-fashioned way, with words, numbers and spreadsheets. We recently talked about these advantages with a case study of A Tale of Two Cows, a infographic that has been seen by more than 105,000 people on our site alone and hundreds of thousands more across other platforms. But if it isn’t done right — or if it’s approached with the wrong expectations — visual storytelling can, at best, fail to produce the results you want. The problem is that many people approach visual storytelling with unreasonably high or simply wrong expectations. So let’s take a look at some of the common misconceptions about visual storytelling — and how those can be worked out.

1. The groundbreaking/ viral story you want your data to tell just isn’t there

So you have lots of data generated by your company (or its users) and would like to see it all laid out in a beautiful, ground-breaking, viral infographic. The problem is, the data may not support the story you want to tell. Your company sales may not be going up as steeply as you’d want, or that year-to-year change may look flatter when presented with a line chart than you thought it would. The biggest risk? Giving in to the temptation to fudge the visualization by playing with the scale or even changing the data itself. Don’t do it! Even if no one finds out (and these days, chances are good someone might), you will know forever that the story you gave the world was wrong.

2. You have a great story in mind… but can’t find the data to support it

This happens often when you have a specific storyline in mind and very little flexibility around it. So you set out to do some research and find the data that will help you craft that story… but have difficulty finding exactly what you need. First, please understand this: visual storytelling doesn’t work like advertising. You can’t just film a bunch of actors playing happy family, dancing in an SUV, and bam: viewers will believe that you have the safest and coolest car on the market. If you don’t have the data to support the story you are trying to tell, you can’t really create a credible infographic about it. The biggest risk: too often, clients in this situation simply withhold data and try to be as vague with their claims as possible. This results in a non-data visualization, simply text on an image. It is very easy for people to see through these non-stories, and hardly ever results in a successful product.

3. You’ve got too much data and want to visualize all of it

Got big data? Good. You want to visualize all of it in one infographic? Could be your worst idea ever. On the one hand, you could end up with a beautiful visualization, something that looks like this or this. But you could also find yourself with a bunch of indecipherable charts or tables and end up blaming the designer for failing to create something beautiful out of all the data you gave them. In reality, if you spend some time parsing through your data and practicing the art of exclusion, you’d be gaining so much more than the time (and possibly resources or money) that you spent.

4. Your expectations are too high

Depending on your budget, commissioning an infographic or data visualization project can seem expensive. And because infographics are still relatively new in content marketing, you may have had to convince your manager to come up with a budget you didn’t previously have. So no one can blame you for wanting an end product that does it all: looks amazing, tells your story, makes people love your brand, goes viral. The problem is, chasing this be-all and end-all of infographics is like trying to walk under a rainbow: barring a case of otherworldly luck, not possible. You could spend five months working on an infographic, going through seventeen iterations and getting approval (and accommodating the desires) of twenty-five managers, and still end up with an infographic that is seen by 5,000 people. Or you could spend those five months producing five infographics (for the same budget, because each of those 17 iterations will pile up on your costs), which collectively get more than 25,000 views. Which strategy was more successful?

5. You have all this data — and no idea what to do with it

This is actually one of the better problems to have with visual storytelling. There are people who now specialize in creating infographics —, of course, being the premier place to find them — and they can help you find a good story and tell it in an appealing way. The key here is to listen to their advice – and trust that they know best what to do and how to do it. Too often, of course, that trust is hard to earn and, as iShotHim Creative Director Mike Jeters said at a recent meetup, the process of helping a client focus their story isn’t always easy, or quick:Image: Mike Jeters, iShotHim The situation you don’t want to end up in is the one we described in the previous section: spending five months on an infographic that should have been completed in three weeks. Finding the right people to work with and trusting that they will do the best job possible for you and your goals should help you avoid that trap.   Infographics and data visualizations have been used by journalists for decades, but are still a relative newcomer to the corporate and non-profit worlds. Commissioners can learn a lot from data journalists, who usually produce visualizations under tight deadlines, with the main objective and accountability of telling a true story rather than a viral story. If you can avoid the five missteps outlined above, you will be on your way to better understanding the process of creating infographics and visual storytelling.   Featured image: Racheal Grazias / Aleks Todorova is the Editorial Director of and has been working on telling stories for and with infographics for the past three years. Follow her on Twitter.

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