When headlines fail to drive interest, reads or clicks, images can pick up the slack. Have a human interest story? The right image can ring the emotional register and make a lasting impact. We’re in the business of storytelling so it’s important to understand not only how images complement the stories we tell but also tell stories of their own.

How an image works:

There are two important things to understand about images. One, they work because they contain symbols and, two, they work as a sum of their symbols.

Symbols:

Symbols stand in to represent another action, idea or concept. Green means go and the triangle on a bathroom placard is obviously a woman’s dress. Easy enough, but it’s important to understand that symbols allow an individual to read an entire story in a matter of seconds.

Not buying it? Let me convince you there’s a speed reader in all of us when it comes to images.

Image of dry pasta communicates few ideas, bland experience
Image of dry pasta communicates few ideas, bland experience

Images as a sum of symbols:

Imagine something slightly more complex — a package of dried pasta. You probably think of Italian food but nothing extravagant. The package reminds us of a processed product, not a fine dining experience.

Let’s thicken the plot and pair dried pasta with an assortment of ingredients, including mushrooms, garlic, tomatoes and herbs.

Our once subpar meal is now a complete culinary experience. The combination of symbols create a story that couldn’t be accomplished alone. The addition of the extra ingredients separate the pasta from it’s ties to processed food and remind us more of a trip to Little Italy than a trip to the supermarket.

Pasta with ingredients communicates rich experience

What does this mean for content?

Reading a headline isn’t hard work, but we often scroll past hundreds of them before we even take a moment to skim a few.  

On the other hand, we read images instantaneously. We don’t scan them from left to right like we do a sentence. We take them in and are at once filled with their intricate ideas and narratives. Adding a good image can turn a listless scroller into an engaged reader.

Choosing an image for your story:

Just like a headline, your image should preview what’s about to unfold. If your content is consistent with a certain emotion, choose an image that matches its tone. Images often communicate a deeper understanding of a person or narrative than the written word is capable of.

In fact, ocularcentrism states that humans favor their sense of vision as both their physical and emotional GPS. If you have your doubts, read Time’s explanation on how T.V. won Kennedy an extended stay at The White House.

It’s okay to capitalize on the reader’s emotions with evocative images as long as they do not mislead your reader. It’s a sport when the bait betrays a fish, but when readers are betrayed they are inclined to, and should, spend their time elsewhere.

If you feel your images are ready to be cast, read on to discover a number of other ways to leverage your content.

 

By Devin Cuevas, Intern