Connecting to your audience: Why “cartoon-y” drawings are such an effective storytelling tool

Drawing is one of mankind’s oldest and most resilient forms of expression, so old that it’s believed to precede written language—as demonstrated by cave and rock paintings from 30,000 years ago. In fact, Neanderthals created abstract cave paintings at least 60,000 years ago. 

We can’t know exactly, but the drawings Homo sapiens recorded included a variety of topics: historical events, cultural celebrations, reflections of beauty, religious ceremonies, and even as warnings to future peoples—with many “how-to” and ritualistic diagrams on hunting wild animals. Back then, humans drew on walls using pigment made from dirt or charcoal mixed with saliva or animal fat. Today we use dry erase markers and Sharpies, but our goals are the same—to tell rich, immersive stories that others can enjoy and learn from.

The term “drawing” can refer to a wide range of approaches. It might be highly technical like an engineer’s rendering or an architectural blueprint, very realistic like a portrait or a still-life, or simpler in form like the cartoons you see in newspapers, or IKEA instructions. Every approach has its own inherent value, but for the purposes of quickly conveying a story or helping people understand a new concept—and especially how it affects people—nothing beats a cartoon. They are easy to understand, highly memorable, and even fun to look at.

Cartoons illustrate the abstract

Every single day, businesses work hard to innovate breakthrough ideas for new strategies, products, and services that they expect, in some way, to improve their customers’ lives while building the business. Innovation is difficult, but the next big challenge becomes articulating those abstract or novel ideas in a way that will get other people excited about them. What does this new vision look like? How does it work? Why is it better? Who’s involved? Who will this idea help and how? What does it mean for our customers? Drawings bring these answers to life with energy and clarity. Cheesy clip art found on Google Images won’t do your idea justice. You need custom drawings made to illustrate your new way of thinking.

“The designated artists were awesome at displaying our ideas visually… Having you guys there puts everyone in a positive state of mind and it really lifts the room… This made the workshop much more engaging and memorable… I’ve never worked with a visual artist before, but I won’t work without you again.”

—Fortune 500 consulting firm client

Cartoon-like drawings help to tell stories so people can comprehend the abstract and the complex. They help to frame the big picture so you can see how everything comes together. How is this new process different? Why should anyone care? The answers to these questions can be very detailed and often develop over time in a collaborative, iterative way. We’ve developed infographics that have gone through more than 20 iterations—but because the early conceptual drawings we use are so simple, they can quickly be revised and presented within days.

Cartoons make things more memorable

Of course, words alone can tell your stories, but pictures—even simple ones—make sure they resonate. As far back as ancient Rome, Cicero, the scholar and philosopher, knew that the ability to remember images was superior to remembering text on its own—especially over longer periods of time. This phenomenon has come to be known as the Picture Superiority Effect. For us (and for nearly everyone), pictures + words = clarity.

“I wanted to express my gratitude for a solid and impactful effort. The video has been shared with many colleagues at all levels of the organization and the response is overwhelmingly positive. I hope that you and the broader team had as much fun as we did in this collaboration.” 

—Biotech client

Your audience is going to care a lot more about a story when they can see themselves in it, so a big part of what we do is to focus on the human element. How are people’s daily lives going to be changed? What will they be doing differently? What’s in it for them? We often answer these questions with empathy maps and custom-drawn storyboard panels that illustrate new ways of working or improved customer experiences through the use of setting, narrative, and dialogue. These scenarios help the audience relate to the story and pull them in.

Cartoons can keep things light (and can be serious when needed)

Day-to-day business can get pretty boring with all the PowerPoints, technical documents, white papers, and conference calls that fill our workdays. When we’re in discovery sessions with our clients, we work hard to loosen people up and get them thinking creatively, so not only are we drawing whenever we can, we try to get our clients drawing and using the other side of their brains. Humor can be a big part of how people connect to these stories. And whether serious or light, the process brings energy, understanding, and clarity.

“You have been patient, expert partners to us for many years. Some of our best work is in collaboration with you… and the team is universally complimentary of the Tremendousness’ work. In particular, Jim mentioned that the designer in his breakout worked seamlessly with him and the group. He said that it really was all credit to the visual artist, who made the process 100% transparent and a real pleasure.” 

—Nonprofit client

For example, we do this with icebreaker exercises in which we ask everyone to draw a self-portrait or their favorite animal. We do this with our empathy maps where we create portraits of important stakeholders so we can better relate to them as we uncover their worries, needs, and desires. We draw metaphorical stories to illustrate current state pain points or future state visions. Some of the more popular business metaphors involve mountain climbing, chasm crossing, Indy car racing, and even Transformer robots. And we also do this in storyboarding exercises. We have everyone break into groups to visually depict a user experience, both good and bad, using simple stick figures, labels, and word balloons. The beauty of cartoons is that anyone can draw most anything and share it with most everyone.

Cartoons are for everyone

There are those who think that cartoons are childish, but this approach enables us to tell our very large clients’ very serious stories in ways that are highly focused, palatable, and captivating. And I want to be clear: just because I use the word “cartoon” doesn’t mean these visual stories come off like an episode of Spongebob Squarepants. We’ve created engaging infographics, videos, and interactive experiences that deal with corporate reorganizations, startup and VC strategies, biotechnology, prescription abuse, world hunger, genetic analysis, agricultural sustainability, cyber defense, consumer privacy, human anatomy, hybrid workforces, neuroscience, financial technology, and so much more. 

You can explain literally anything using visual storytelling. Consider this: why do you think we rely on it so much to teach our young? It’s because it makes ideas real. Because it’s engaging. Because it’s precise.

Because it works.