[WebDebate #45 summary] Visual storytelling for diplomatic practice

09 February 2021

Diplomacy is often thought of as a practice centering on language. Yet, the visual image of diplomatic practice is increasingly important in a world in which images proliferate and videoconferencing has replaced face-to-face meetings. Diplomats need to be aware of the power of images, and need to have a sense of best practices and potential pitfalls when it comes to visual storytelling. Our 45th WebDebate ‘Visual storytelling for diplomatic practice’ took a closer look at this important topic. 

There is no better example of the increasing importance of images and visual storytelling than last year’s opening of the 75th UN General Assembly (UNGA). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, heads of states and governments were unable to travel to New York for the opening of the assembly. Instead, each country sent a video message that was displayed in the assembly hall. 

With the help of our speakers, we took a closer look at how world leaders used images and visual storytelling to mark the occasion. We were joined by Ms Stéphanie Fillion, a journalist working on UN affairs, and Dr Massimiliano Fusari, an academic and consultant on digital media as a visual storytelling means.

How have countries utilised this opportunity for visual communication and storytelling?

Many countries used the added opportunities that the video messages presented in terms of visual communication skillfully. Fillion highlighted a number of best practices. Some countries, for example China and North Macedonia, used the background to convey a sense of the country’s culture, heritage, and landmarks. The video message from the Philippines contained additional images to underscore the president’s remarks. Small details, such as the placement of the country’s flag as well as the UN flag in the frame, conveyed a commitment to multilateralism. The use of visual communication and storytelling can be summarised as: (a) careful staging of the world leader, and (b) the intentional use of symbols. 

What does a further analysis of the videos reveal?

Fusari presented some further analysis of the videos and highlighted the use of symmetry and the golden ratio. These visual elements provide a sense of coherence and balance and are pleasing to the eye. They are also used intentionally as a frame to direct the gaze of viewers towards key elements such as a person’s head and hands. Similarly, ‘framing the wings’ is a term borrowed from theater to describe choices made regarding the sides of the image. In some of the video messages, we could see very intentional choices for framing the wings to define the space in which the ‘performance’ was taking place. When arranging high-level video messages such as these, it is worth paying attention to these elements. They provide visual clues and important hints for the audience on how to read the messages of the video.

What are some other details that are worth paying attention to?

Fillion and Fusari’s analysis really showed that details such as camera placement, teleprompter placement, background, and lighting matter a great deal in conveying messages effectively. In addition, the video format, compared to being physically present in the UNGA to deliver a speech, also leads to more attention being paid to items of clothing and accessories and, therefore, necessitates very intentional choices 

Who are the messages directed to?

As with every piece of communication and storytelling, it is important to define who the intended audience is. The example of the UNGA showed that video messages were often crafted with both the domestic and international audience in mind. In some cases, the choice of backgrounds and symbols can best be explained by realising that the speeches before the UNGA were addressed to more than one constituency. 

What lies ahead?

Fillion highlighted how 2020 provided some substantial challenges to the communication of diplomatic practice. For example, in the absence of physical meetings, how can a videoconferencing or a phone call between world leaders be conveyed in an interesting way? Fusari stressed that messages can be crafted with good choices regarding symbols, staging, and framing, and how countries can engage in visual storytelling. The debate made it clear that this is more than a temporary situation and that careful thought needs to be given to the use of new technologies and  their communication and storytelling potentials. 

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