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Story Power! Brain-Friendly Content through Visuals and Storytelling

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Visual and Story Power! Storytelling are powerful ways to create good and interesting content which is fun to read and easy to memorize.

To illustrate this let’s start with a simple experiment: Memorize and repeat the following sentence. You can read it as often as you like:

Two legs sat on three legs eating no legs when along came four legs and stole no legs from two legs. When four legs ran off with no legs, two legs picked up three legs and threw it at four legs until four legs brought no legs back.

If you accomplished this little exercise there are two possible outcomes:

  1. You had problems. You had to repeat the sentence more than three times.
  2. You memorized the sentence quickly by reading it one or two times.

Most of us are not actively using the right brain hemisphere. After reading the sentence five-, six or even seven times many still have troubles repeating it – and after a week nobody will remember it for sure.

If you memorized the sentence quickly you most likely saw pictures of the story in your mind. I created a visual version in case you didn’t. Click here to see the story. Now you will remember it even years later…

Kathy Sierra, the author of many computer book best-sellers and the primary author of the very popular (but for very sad reasons retired…) Creating Passionate Users blog, explains it like this:

One reason for this effect is that visual images are processed in two parts of the brain rather than just one. A pile of evidence supports that people learn more deeply from words with pictures than from words alone (Mayer, 1989b, Mayer and Gallini, 1990; Mayer, Bove, and others, 1996.), and overall, several studies combined have shown a median percentage gain of 89% effectiveness. Pretty dramatic. Some of the theory behind the gain you get when words and pictures are combined is that we use our brains more fully, processing the content more deeply, because we actively connect the words to the pictures. In other words, our brains work to make sense of the combined pictures and text, and that processing leads to more meaningful and memorable learning.

Those principles can be used in all content centric areas like teaching, writing, advertising, blogging etc. There are different techniques you can use:

Pictures AND Words

The importance of text placement

According to memory expert Kenneth Higbee, “The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is usually applied to the effectiveness of a picture in understanding what was communicated; it may also apply to the effectiveness of a picture in remembering what was communicated.”

It is much more effective to use pictures and words than just words alone. In her article Kathy point’s out that the placement of text is also very important:

…the text that goes with the images should be integrated with the pictures. In five different tests, one group was exposed to text placed below the illustration, while the second group was exposed to text placed near the illustration. Although both groups saw identical text and graphics (with the only difference being placement of the text), in all five studies the second group performed better on subsequent tests. When a reader has to keep switching between the graphic and its description, he has to work harder… on the wrong things. There’s only so much mental bandwidth in a reader’s brain, and [broken record and dead-obvious here] that bandwidth should be used for making sense of the actual topic, not for making sense of the way the topic is presented.


Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott Mccloud Scott McCloud explains in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art how comics tick, how they’re composed, read and understood. The whole book itself is a comic, just amazing, entertaining and fun to read and many lessons to learn! For everyone interested in the arts of comics.

Just look at the Google Chrome Comic book with artwork by Scott McCloud to understand the power of comics to present information.

Charts and Graphs

Use whatever type of chart or graph as long as it helps you to make your point clearer. You all know pie-chart’s, bar-chart’s etc. I won’t go into much details here. But play with annotations or different colors to highlight your message.

Mind Maps

Mind Map: Story Power!A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged radially around a central key word or idea. Mind maps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas, and as an aid in study, organization, problem solving, decision making, and writing.

A mind map is also very good way to present information and it’s worth mentioning here.


Vera F. Birkenbihl, a German pioneer of brain-friendly education coined the term Analograffiti. It is a creativity technique to capture associations by using a combination of words and visuals. This is how she explains Analograffiti by using Analograffiti:

You can use Analograffiti to capture your knowledge about any topic. By only looking at this picture I remember all the stories and lessons behind the acronyms and visuals from the book I read many years ago…


There are many things we can learn from good film makers. They figured out how to keep us entertained. Film makers use a technique called screenwriting to lay out storyboards. Screenwriting is the art of writing scripts for films, television or video games.

Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever NeedMany successful stories and Hollywood blockbusters are based upon a screenwriting template called the hero’s journey. It goes like this: A challenge is given, the challenge is rejected, the challenge is finally embraced. The world is saved!

I just started to explore this topic. One of the next books on my reading list is a screenwriting book called Save the Cat!

One thing we can learn from good filmmakers is the following: Don’t start at the beginning rather jump right into the action and get the audience involved. Think about this the next time you do a presentation. Don’t bore your audience with lengthy introductions and a history about the topic – instead jump right to the interesting parts and draw your audience in!

You can find a good write up about Storyboarding for Non-Fiction on Phil Windley’s blog.

Words alone…

You need to be a very good writer to just use words alone to describe complex topics brain friendly. You somehow need to create pictures in your readers mind just by using words. One way of doing this is by using figurative language, metaphor’s and analogies.

In the follow up post Story Power! Tools to Create Engaging Content I will show you some tools to create your own visuals, comic strips, photo stories etc. and where to find good images to dress up your content. The article is now available here.

PS: Like everybody else I hate spam and stupid advertising emails. The only advertising newsletters subscription I have for more than 8 years is from a German Cognac store. No, No… what are you thinking? I don’t have a alcohol problem :) Let me explain: Eight yeas ago I was looking for a special gift – a bottle of a very old Armagnac from a special year… That shop was the only one who had it so I ordered from them and everything went well. Since that time I’m receiving a newsletter. Not often. Maybe four time a year not more. What’s so special about this newsletter you may ask? There is always a new story to read. Very funny and intelligent. There are two characters: The easy going but cheeky secretary and the clumsy (from her point of view) boss. Here is a translation of the latest newsletter (In the actual one they use their real names. I changed the names to Boss / Secretary):

Boss: "Oh my god, oh my god, that hurts! Oh dear! Oh dear! Horrible!
Secretary: "?"
Boss: "0,7 percent less in January!"
Secretary:"Your blood alcohol content during working hours?"
Boss: "No! Our revenue!"
Secretary: "Is there still enough to pay my salary?"
Boss(bitter): "THIS is your ONLY CONCERN???"
Secretary: "Hm, yes."
Boss: "I already lost 29 gram because of all this worry!!!"
Secretary: "You better loose 29 Kilo’s – then you would almost reach your ideal weight, hahaha…"
Boss: "But the experts say the CRISIS will become even WORSE!"
Secretary: "Yes, exactly those experts who predicted economic growth not so long ago?"
Boss: "Unfortunately I had stocks from of the DONT.TRUST.ME- bank, *sigh*  …"
Secretary: "You are really an expert…"
Boss: "…now they are only worth 2 Pesos, *cry*"
Secretary: "That’s still enough for a Tequila! Vamos!"
Boss: "…back then they were at 3000$, *whine* *whimper*…"
Secretary: "Back than we also had men and not sissy girls – everything was much better. Look at it like this:  "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." *singing*
Boss: "…and now I am FINISHED!!!"
Secretary: "Finally."
Boss: "And what should we do now in your opinion?"
Secretary: "We do some special offers – that’s called “deflation” and its a sign of crisis."

You see. It’s almost like a comic strip :) Cheers!

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  • I am not sure I got the point of the dialogue, but I agree about putting text on images. It makes things clear, helps parse out the non-sense and adds value to the reader. We see this especially with instagram.

  • Elisa Planellas says:

    H Rainer,

    One reason I want to thank you for this post is because it has brought me a lot of inspiration about how to create even better content than I have been. I write a lot about business and sometimes there doesn’t seem to be much room for the creativity associated with storytelling. Now, however, after reading your posts I find devising ways to weave in a vibrant story can help to improve a business’ relationship with its audience. Although there remains times when the use of metaphors and the like should be left off, the way that storytelling increases reader engagement can help in furthering the very goal the content was written to achieve.

  • Rainer Falle says:

    @Sivakuma: For UI sketches I am using Balsamiq Mockups. See the follow-up post Story Power! Tools for more information.

  • Sivakumar M. says:


    Good Article.
    Which tool u are using for UI sketches?

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