Communicate complex concepts with comics

February 28, 2013

Look! Up on the Web! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…supercomics!

Comics, cartoons and other methods of graphic storytelling have become the superheroes of public relations and communication.  They draw your audience’s attention, increase understanding and move people to act.

Comics are especially effective at clarifying complex concepts.

Tackle tough topics visually.

We say,  “I see” to mean “I understand.” Comics help readers literally see complicated ideas because comics integrate words and pictures to show stories sequentially.  That’s why:

  • Parents in a 2004 study at Texas Tech University answered 25 percent more questions correctly when they watched an animated cartoon explaining the need for polio vaccines than when they read a leaflet covering the same material.
  • Physics students in a series of 1996 studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, learned 51 percent more from cartoons with captions showing how lightning forms than from 600-word passages describing the process — or from the cartoons and passages combined.
  • Students in a 2004 study by L. Brent Igo and his colleagues scored almost twice as high at differentiating between confusing word pairs (accept vs. except, for instance) if they looked at cartoons illustrating the examples instead of only reading written examples.
  • Patients in a 1995 study at the East Carolina University School of Medicine in Greenville, N.C. were 150 percent more likely to give correct responses when they received cartoons about wound care instead of text covering the same information.
  • Patients are seven times as likely to answer all questions correctly after reading cartoon instructions about wound care versus receiving the same information via text, according to a 1996 study at the University of Michigan.

In fact, cartoons communicate information better than other forms of illustration, including stick figures, representational illustrations, symbols or photographs, according to a 1977 study by J.M. Moll at the Sheffield Centre for Rheumatic Diseases in England.

Get the picture?

No wonder NASA uses comic books to explain the ionosphere and other aspects of space exploration. Yahoo! maps out user interface engineering in comic panels. Kelmore Investment Company produces comics to teach investors the basics of options trading, mutual funds and the New York Stock Exchange.  The 9/11 Commission presented its report as a graphic novel.

Publishers are also getting in on the comics trend. In 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer used a comic strip to explain Steven Reiner’s research on how  T cells fight off invading microbes.  The Farrar, Straus and Giroux imprint Hill and Wang produces graphic novels to illustrate genetics and DNA.

So think about it — visually.  How could you use comic strips, cartoons and other graphic storytelling approaches to compel readers to read, understand, remember and act on your organization’s messages?

Communicate with Comics

Want more techniques for writing releases that reach readers? Join Ann Wylie for  “Now They SEE It,” a PRSA webinar on March 12.

Ann Wylie

Ann Wylie (WylieComm.com) works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at ann@WylieComm.com.


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