Defeating the status quo with visual storytelling

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Written by Tim Riesterer on 13 August 2015

While more market research shows that your biggest enemy is your buyer’s status quo—not your other competitors—the most pressing question for salespeople is obvious: What can you do to make change seem more attractive?

That question matters because salespeople can no longer afford to think of their customer conversations strictly in selling terms. That’s because, in reality, what you’re really conducting is a change management project.

Two experts change management, John Kotter and Dan Cohen, authors of The Heart of Change, contend that the process by which people become open to change typically follows a specific three-part sequence. Guess which of the two sequences below most accurately reflects how humans warm up to the prospect of doing something different:

  • Analyse – Think – Change
  • See – Feel – Change

If you went with the second option, you’re spot on. While many might believe change follows the more analytical first sequence, Kotter and Cohen note that nearly all successful change management projects follow the more visually charged sequence of “see – feel – change.”

Visual Storytelling for the “Old Brain”

Why is this the way humans process change? It has to do with something neuroscientists call the 'old brain' – the primitive, non-analytical region of our brains that governs decision-making. We conceive of change visually because—get this—the “old brain” doesn’t have the capacity for language. Instead, it relies on images to create contrast between two alternatives (the 'new brain' is the logical region that validates and justifies decisions.

Here are some other aspects of the 'old brain' to consider when you’re in front of prospects and customers:

  • It embraces the concrete, shuns the abstract.
  • It craves contrast and fast resolution.
  • It responds most powerfully to less analytically-driven concepts like visuals and emotions.
  • Remembers “firsts” and “lasts” (the beginning and end of your story carries the most weight)

If you can appeal to this visually centred, decision-making part of the brain, you improve your chances of creating the buying vision and defeating the status quo. The question is, how do you do that best in your customer conversations?

Maximising the Picture Superiority Effect

Numerous studies have shown that people remember things far better when the information is presented visually. One study found that people remember only 10 percent of what they’re told just two days after hearing it. But that figure jumps to 65 percent if the information is accompanied by pictures.

This is known as the Picture Superiority Effect, and it’s something you can take advantage of in your sales interactions. One of the best ways to tell a visually compelling story that resonates with the decision-making part of the brain is to adhere to these 'three Cs':

  • Context – Defeating the status quo often depends on how vividly you can highlight gaps and deficiencies in your prospect’s current situation. This generates urgency, causing prospects to question whether the shortcomings inherent to their status quo situation could prevent them from realising their top business objectives. You can amplify the urgency by visually depicting how the emerging issues and trends make the current approach unsustainable. This allows prospects to see and feel the threat to their goals, helping you make them more open to persuasion.


  • Contrast – Make sure your visuals establish clear contrast between the pain and insecurity they feel in their current situation and the relief and value they’ll reap from yours. This “to and from” approach allows prospects to visualise where they are now and where a change management project, spearheaded by you, can take them. This helps you accentuate the value of doing something different.


  • Concrete – The 'old brain' doesn’t respond to analytical things like facts and figures, so resorting to them too often will sap the persuasive power of your message. An approach better suited to the decision-making part of the brain will employ simple, concrete visuals—think numbers, stick figures, basic shapes and arrows—to give potentially complex concepts a veneer of simplicity.  


The prospect of change can be fear-inducing and complex – that’s why the status quo is such a formidable foe. But, by using visual storytelling tools to tap into the hidden forces that shape how buyers frame value and make decisions, you can make that process not just less daunting, but actually desirable.


About the author

Tim Riesterer is the Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer at Corporate Visions