Visual Storytelling: The Science, History, and Power

Josh Edwards
min read
Visual Storytelling: The Science, History, and Power

“Storytelling” is a recent buzzword that’s being used everywhere. You hear it all the time in marketing. Be authentic. Tell your story. Story is king. The use of the term had gotten to the point where renown Austrian graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister had an interview of him go viral in the creative community when he made the comical quip “You are not a storyteller.”

While you may roll your eyes, sick to death of hearing this over and over, and despite Stefan’s strong opinion, to a large extent, it’s true. You are a storyteller. And there is perhaps no version of storytelling more powerful than visual storytelling.

The science of storytelling

In his brilliant 2017 TedTalk, David JP Phillips breaks down the magical science of storytelling. In his talk, David lays out the fundamentals of why storytelling is actually a science and, in turn, why that’s so powerful. He queries, how can we go to watch the latest James Bond movie (which is completely unrealistic), sit there and think “what a guy! I would love to be more like him. I want to walk like him, talk like him. I really like Bond.”

Later, he walks down the local high street, passes the watchmakers and sees an Omega watch just like the one Bond wears in the film. He pays $10,000 for it, puts it on his wrist and now, he feels more like James Bond. How can this be? 

It’s all in the power of storytelling. David reasons that this all comes down to one core thing--emotional investment. Because “the more emotionally invested you are in anything in your life, the less critical and the less objectively observant you become.”

And how do brands encourage emotional investment? They induce different hormones:


Dopamine is a hormone that increases your focus, increases motivation, and helps you to remember things more clearly. It can be induced by building suspense. For example, if you have a cliffhanger in your visual storytelling. Even if you don’t use a cliffhanger, good storytelling is by default dopamine-creating, because the audience is always waiting for the next twist and turn, expecting the next part of the story to unfold. 


Oxytocin is the hormone that is very active in the reproductive process. According to, “ may also play a role in recognition, sexual arousal, trust, and anxiety.” It’s the chemical that helps a mother bond to her baby. The effects of oxytocin are as follows: you become more generous, you bond to the storyteller, and you trust them more. In storytelling, you are creating empathy. Whatever character and narrative you build, you create empathy for that character. David argues that oxytocin is the most beautiful hormone of all “because you feel humane.”


The last of the three hormones integral to every good story is endorphins. Endorphins are the neurochemicals in your brain that create that “high” you feel after a good run. By simply making people laugh, you can get people to become more creative, more relaxed, and more focused.

Most importantly, all of these hormones feel good.

Why is visual storytelling so powerful?

So, how does this apply to visual storytelling in particular? Visual storytelling is by far the most powerful medium to explore because you can play with the different senses, including sight and sound. Visual storytelling creates emotions and, when done correctly, induces these hormones. Colour and lighting discreetly encourage a viewer to feel a certain way. Music choice within video along with subtle sounds and ambience all do the same. 

There is no other medium more powerful.

How can you utilize visual storytelling on social media?

Once you’ve created your visual story, the best place to get eyeballs on it is social media. Whether it’s TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, or any other social platform, the cost to upload is free and you have incredible opportunities to tap in to an audience of millions. It’s when your visual storytelling works well and hits the right notes, that your content has the potential to go viral, which in turn can help promote and build your brand.

Below, we’ve put together a few examples of how brands have successfully executed strategies and really utilised visual storytelling to its full potential.

The origin story

Telling a powerful origin story really helps to build trust and brand loyalty with your audience. If they understand who you are and where you’re coming from, they can really empathize with that and get on board with what you’re trying to do. You’re looking to inspire an intimate connection with the audience.

In Lego’s case, their target audience was children and we think they absolutely nailed this.

Communicating aspirations

Use the power of visual storytelling to illustrate what your business is about and what they’re hoping to achieve. With an aspirational narrative, you’re looking past the short term of selling a product or service and trying to emphasize why your brand is making the world a better place. 

Now more than ever, consumers are prioritizing brands that show they’re socially conscious and really work hard to give back to their local communities.’s video is a fantastic example of this.

Educate and entertain

If you’re not careful, visual storytelling can become too stuffy and boring. Remember, the audience is picking what to watch and when to watch it, so your content really has to hit the nail on the head by both entertaining them and educating them. 

Dollar Shave Club expertly executed this with their iconic brand video that sent their brand skyrocketing to success. Remember, making people laugh induces those endorphins!

Document the journey

A lot of the time, just the process of creating a product and growing a business is a brilliant story in itself. If you can, why not document your journey? Allowing your audience and customer base to see behind the scenes gives them a sense that they’re closer to the brand and getting access they wouldn’t usually have. By throwing open your doors and letting people in, you can build more loyalty and trust.

UK brewing company Brewdog is doing a fantastic job of this, pumping out content across all their platforms that really lets people in through the factory doors. We love this recent video about them brewing a cocktail-inspired mint julep beer.

Engage with your community

Show me, don’t tell me. If you have a pool of customers who have greatly benefited from using your product or service, highlight them through visual storytelling. The best stories are the real ones that people can really relate to (remember, oxytocin induces empathy).

Even just asking for user generated content (UGC) can be a great move. It’s that much more relatable, gets your audience involved with the brand and, with social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, it’s never been easier to gather. One brand that has really nailed this is GoPro. Their YouTube Channel is made up of incredible UGC from all over the world, showcasing just how brilliantly their products work.

Alternatively, you could create a short video that shares the customer’s story and journey from start to finish. Video testimonials and case studies are really powerful. You want to position the customer as the hero and share their journey from start to finish. What was the problem they were facing and how did your brand step in to help them solve it?

We found Slack’s “Sandwich Video” testimonial to be one of the very best (a great use of ‘educate and entertain’ here too).

Wrapping up

So, in conclusion, “storytelling” isn’t just a buzzword. There’s a genuine reason as to why everyone is talking about it. For as long as humans have been walking the earth, storytelling has been part of our culture. It’s how we communicate and exchange our ideas.

It’s why we made it our mission here at UNUM, to empower the storyteller in all of us.

Without storytelling, marketing and branding would be nothing. When done correctly and appropriated to each and every social media platform individually, it is the most powerful tool out there. Once you understand the science behind it and the countless different ways in which you can utilise it, you’ll see real progress and growth across your social media platforms.

Need to start somewhere?

Here are some storytelling playbooks for your brand.

March 25, 2021

About the author

Josh Edwards

Josh Edwards

Josh is an accomplished filmmaker, industry writing veteran, and storyteller based in Indonesia (by way of the UK). He’s really passionate about travel and documents adventures and stories through his films.

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