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Changing Minds: The science behind visual storytelling


Do you feel that?

That tugging sensation on your heart?

You’re not sure why, but as serious, and as focused, and as grownup as you are, you likely just responded to the photo of a child’s joy.


The Science Behind Visual Storytelling: Three Principles

1 > Humans are visual first, verbal second.

Scientists call this the pictorial superiority effect. Or as John Medina puts it in Brain Rules: “Vision trumps all other senses.” The visual cortex is the largest system in the human brain, taking up half of our brain’s resources. Study after study bears this out.

Effectively pairing words with pictures and video enhances attention, memory, recall, and believability. For example, Medina reports that in one study when information was presented orally, people remembered only about 10 percent of what they heard when tested 72 hours later. That figure jumped to 65 percent when pictures were added.

2> Our decisions and actions are based more on emotional reactions than rational thought.

Decisions are made in the brain’s emotional region. Antonio Damasio published Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain in 1994. He was one of the first doctors to record that his patients who suffered damage to the emotional regions of their brains had immense trouble making decisions. Today’s neuroscientists, using the latest brain scanning technology, have confirmed this: tap a person’s emotions and you have a much greater probability of influencing his or her decision-making.

Good visuals make people feel first, and think second. Effective pictures and videos evoke powerful emotions. Emotions drive decisions. Let emotions be the initial filter for selecting one picture over another.

3> Visuals are the most effective communications vehicles for evoking emotion and getting people to take action.

Madison Avenue has long known that images have the power to grab people emotionally in a way that words alone cannot. Vintage ads were not subtle in their focus on the emotional pay-off elements of their product. (Think Marlboro Man.) People buy products in the hopes that this will bring them masculinity (or femininity), love, wealth, freedom or other desires.

I think Simon Sinek, motivational speaker and author of the book Start With Why, explains the brain science-to-behavior connection most succinctly:

It’s all grounded in the tenets of biology. Not psychology, biology. If you look at a cross-section of the human brain, looking from the top down, What you see is the human brain is actually broken into three major components that correlate perfectly with the golden circle. Our newest brain, our homo sapien brain, our neocortex, corresponds with the “what” level. The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought and language. The middle two sections make up our limbic brains. And our limbic brains are responsible for all of our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It’s also responsible for all human behavior, all decision-making, and it has no capacity for language. In other words, when we communicate from the outside in, yes, people can understand vast amounts of complicated information like features and benefits and facts and figures. It just doesn’t drive behavior.

The rationale for paying close attention to visuals when you are trying to get people to make a decision or change behavior is clear. But understanding that pictures are important isn’t enough. You need to be intentional about how you use them for message framing. This is where the art of communications strategy meets the science of human behavior.

Google is all over the juxtaposition of visuals and the science of behavior.

The same principle applies to data. We need to create meaning by relating the unfamiliar to the familiar. Piling on raw numbers may prove a point to statisticians, but others need more context to understand the meaning of data. “Since the dawn of time we’ve been captivated by images. But the web has turbocharged our ability to view, share and create more imagery than ever before, to the extent that visual imagery has become the dominant form of communication in the 21st century…

This bias towards imagery is creating a new sensorium – how we perceive and sense the environment around us. It has not only influenced how we engage in the digital space, but outside of it too… Imagery is concise, especially iconic imagery, allowing us all to relate to it and read it in a way that’s commonly understood.”

-- Google: The Engagement Project, an anthropological study

You may only need one image plus text to tell a compelling story. I’ll be diving into best practices for visual storytelling in future posts. Sign up now so you don’t miss out.


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Brain Rules, John Medina

Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger

Descartes' error: emotion, reason, and the human brain, Antonio Damasio

Emotion in Marketing: How Our Brains Decide What's Shareable (The Next Web)

Emotionomics: Leveraging Emotions for Business Success, Dan Hill

Google: The Engagement Project, an anthropological study

Center for Community Change: Social Math

The Storytelling Animal: The Science of How We Came to Live and Breathe Stories


photo credit: CC Some rights reserved David Hilgart via flickr

Editor's note: Originally published August 14, 2014; updated January 25, 2018.


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