What the Heck Is ...


I’ve explored how non-designers in the communications business can get the visual storytelling religion.

While the vast majority of PR folks struggle to bring a visual dimension to communications, there’s a design technique that plays to our strength.

What I call “word visuals” come in three flavors:

  • Clever words that stand on their own: The words, sometimes in hand-written form, completely carry the day. Little or no design goes into this type of visual storytelling.
  • Speech cloud from a celebrity: I get a lot of mileage from this technique which is particularly effective for B2B companies where you don’t expect Jimmy Fallon, Mark Zuckerberg (hero image above) or the like to surface.
  • Replace the words in an existing visual: Take something that already exists and replace the words with your own.

Clever Words That Stand on Their Own

One of the best examples of this technique comes from Douglas Wray who broke down the essence of social media platforms with the help of a donut.

Donuts - Handwriting -visual storytelling- word visual

Again, a third grader could design this visual. The power comes from the cleverness in the words.

The imperfection of the handwriting actually adds to the visual appeal. Check out what happens if we take the same content, but package it with typography:

Donuts - Typeset- visual storytelling- word visual

Using type results in a less interesting visual. There’s a certain beauty to the rawness of handwriting.

Even a few words can create a powerful visual. BusinessInsider wrote a feature on Ben Silbermann, Pinterest CEO, that included the Venn diagram below

Venn Diagram - visual storytelling- word visual

Just three words with two overlapping circles and voila — a touch of levity has been added. I get a lot of mileage out the Venn diagram.

Speech Cloud with a Celebrity

I noted earlier that I deploy this technique on a regular basis.

When a VentureBeat story bitched bitched about PR professionals accompanying executives in press interviews, I served up the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld:

No PR Person for You- visual storytelling- word visual

As a second example, a post lamenting the lack of budget information in RFPs riffed off of Jay Leno and his diction during his monologues when he hosted the Tonight Show.

Leno - Work with Me - visual storytelling- word visual

Replace the Words in an Existing Visual

Literally anything with writing on it becomes a candidate for this technique:

  • Books
  • Posters
  • Billboards
  • Movie posters
  • Signs
  • Even a soda can (more on this in a moment)

In a post that examined anecdotes in business storytelling, we found a photo of a person holding a sign at a football game and took the liberty of changing the sign to cheer on the Anecdotes (GIF toggles between the two):

Go Anecdotes - visual storytelling- word visual

I mentioned this technique can even be applied to a soda can. Playing off New Coke, we inserted Twitter predicting that a new version of the social tool would come to the market. Then gain, I suppose Mr. Musk will say in this (or not).

Twitter Cola - visual storytelling- word visual

Again, these types of visuals depend on words to do the heavy lifting.

Equally important, you can create them with minimal design expertise, though mimicking a typeface on a soda does require someone at the controls of Photoshop.

Word visuals at their best can trigger that “what the heck!” moment from the reader.

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