Visual Storytelling: Is Seeing Believing?

by Melanie Moore Kubo

Visual storytelling is a practice that is at once old and new in our sector. Telling stories and creating images are deeply rooted cultural traditions in human society – some of the oldest manifestations of our values and beliefs.

We tell stories because historically – ancestrally – this is how we learned. Stories were passed from generation to generation and tribe to tribe to teach about how to stay safe, how to find food and shelter, and how to care for one another. Stories emanated from and were received in a blanket of trust. As a result, our brains are wired for narrative.

Pictures – whether we take them with a camera, draw them, or carve them on walls – are actually our oldest system of checks and balances, reflecting the value we place on truth. As much as we’ve relied on storytelling and storytellers, they did always seem to be the ones hanging out around the most peyote, so perhaps some of our other ancestors sought a little independent confirmation of events. We value pictures because we hold that seeing is believing.

But is it? Fast forward to today – the world of Flip cameras, picture mail, digital storytelling, You Tube, and user-generated everything. We have the capability to see more than ever before, and visual media is everywhere around us. Do we still believe it? I would argue that we do… And we don’t.

The power of a compelling image is undeniable. Regardless of our left brain attempts to rationalize or make sense of what we’re seeing, we usually feel the effects of visual media first. And most scholars of human behavior will tell us that our decisions and actions are very much determined by how we feel. Images move us, whether we “believe” them or not.

But we are also skeptical of emotional manipulation, and these days, technological manipulation. And we are INUNDATED with images, in a way that we have never quite been before. We have become skeptics about the value and veracity of images because we have to have a way to sort them. Doubt is a defense mechanism in an ultra-connected world.

In the social sector, we sit squarely on the horns of this dilemma – belief and doubt – when presented with a visual story about a social change effort.

Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater

For a long time, much mainstream philanthropy in this country was – many would say still is – motivated by emotional appeals, often including an image of someone less fortunate than the target audience. Donors and nonprofit leaders alike did their work in part for the satisfaction of changing the story implied in that sad image.

Indeed, much individual giving in this country, and even that of organized philanthropy, still follows this basic pattern: Image. Story. Emotion. Action. This causal chain is seared into our DNA. It is a force to be reckoned with.

But the social sector is growing more sophisticated, analytical, and strategic everyday. As much as we live in a world of images, we also live in a world of metrics and measurement, and that is a good thing. We need to know more than we have historically known about the results of our social investments. The stakes are too high, the opportunity cost too precious to tolerate waste or inefficiency. We don’t believe stories alone anymore. We seek more data, more evidence that change is needed, or that change is happening.

But synaptic pathways die hard. In Hope Consulting’s just-released Money for Good study, over 60% of high net worth families – potential impact investors – reported that they do not use any data to guide their charitable giving. Image – story – emotion – is still the most common pathway to philanthropic “action.” Instead of fighting human nature, how can the metrics movement better leverage it to promote strategic philanthropy? If we train ourselves away from acting on our emotions, do we miss critical opportunities to act? Like all great investors, we need to be as good at using our intuition as we are at reading the numbers. The ability to utilize well-told and credible stories is one of our most powerful capacities, and we need to train up. In my next post, I’ll offer a framework for sorting and understanding visual media in the social sector.

Melanie Moore Kubo is Founder and CEO of See Change, Inc.

This article originally appeared in full contact Philanthropy. Reprinted with permission.