The Storyboard: An Outline for Visual Technical Communications

As technical communicators, we’re often assigned to projects that appeal to more than one sense—words, visuals and sounds—to convey a message.  A multi-media technical communications project requires not only creative skills, but organizational skills as well. We can settle on a concept, a delivery method, and come up with ideas for visuals and copy points. But, we need feedback before we invest the time producing our project, or we may find we’ve gone down the proverbial rabbit hole and missed the intended goal of the project. You’re probably familiar with at least some the tools to create presentations, tutorials, videos, animated instructions and other technical communications projects There is one fairly low-tech tool to help organize and structure your multi-media project—the storyboard.

Storyboards help you organize before you begin to develop your presentation, video tutorial, animation, simulation or web-based training, by putting it into a format that allows others to see the sequence of your presentation before you begin production. It helps organize the pile (or the idea that could become a pile) of videos, photos, audio clips, and documents according to a logical sequence that can be aligned with text or audio.

 

Introduction to the Technical Communications Storyboard

According to Wikipedia, “ Storyboards are graphic organizers in the form of illustrations or images displayed in sequence for the purpose of pre-visualizing a motion picture, animation, motion graphic or interactive media sequence.”

Storyboards range from simple hand drawn stick figures on scratch paper, to extravagantly detailed full-color artwork, or they can be created using photos or cutouts from magazines, anything that helps accurately represent a particular scene.  Technical communications teams understand the importance of accuracy, and accuracy in defining visual concepts is no different. Take a look at the Resources list at the end of the article for links to more information on creating storyboards.

Benefits of Using the Storyboard

A storyboard requires its own level of effort within the overall technical communications project, but there are significant benefits to be gained from the extra effort:

  • A storyboard provides a visual outline to solicit feedback, review and approvals.
  • A storyboard serves as a framework on which to place and manipulate all the elements
  • A storyboard visualizes the project as a whole and in sequence to provide the roadmap during production

The Importance of Feedback

Like complex manuals or comprehensive help systems, creating a visual technical communications project, requires long hours, diligence, and great patience. So if you have to go back and remake any part of complex project, you waste valuable time and effort. Create the storyboard first to allow the stake holders to visualize the full project. This provides opportunities for specific feedback and approval, helping to minimize rework after you begin production.

Creating a Framework to Organize the Project

Like steel girders make up the framework of a new office building, the storyboard serves as the visual structure on which the elements of your visual technical communications project are laid out and organized.

Using a storyboard template you can determine what elements–video, audio, photos, screen shots, and user interactions—are placed within the display.  You can flesh out script notes or add links to the actual script, length of time for the panel, and any special effects (SFX).  You can also include a photo or hand drawn pictorial of the event(s) for that particular shot. Use one panel for each shot and add as much detail as necessary to ensure the concept is easily understood.

Visualizing the Presentation: a Roadmap for Production

Seeing the big picture helps to understand how the various unit-parts work together to create the whole.  Storyboarding is a great tool for seeing the whole technical communications project.

Now that you have all your panels created and laid out in an initial format, you are ready to sort and test your ideas. Ask yourself, and other members of your team some key questions: What doesn’t work? What needs to be modified? Are there additions that might enhance the presentation? Which thoughts get moved into the “ideas for later” bin? Is there anything missing? Are there gaps that might introduce confusion to the consumer? Is there a better way to arrange the project? Which pictures would fit here? What video clips would work best in this panel? Will captions enhance the project here?  The answers provide invaluable feedback that ensures the goals of the project are met.

 

How to Create a Technical Communications Project Storyboard:

Here’s the basic procedure for creating a storyboard:

  1. Find a template to help you get started: you can download the template we’ve provided, or you may want to search the Internet for other examples. Don’t forget to check the files within your organization for something that’s been used before.
  2. Gather ideas and concepts: Pull together the ideas for the project: what are the main concepts to be presented? Do you already have basic copy points? Will simple sketches for the key visuals work, or should you find clip art, photos or clippings to paste into the storyboard? This is the raw material for the project.
  3. Complete one panel for each message or shot: write it out on a storyboard panel, filling in as much detail as possible. Draw or attach a picture. Include links to images, or copy points if you have them. And note any additional visual or sound effects that may need to be employed. For example, in a computer-based training presentation, you may want to note an interactive button that allows the user to get more information in a popup. The goal is to create a pictorial representation of the desired outcome for that idea or scene.
  4. Arrange and rearrange: Maneuver the panels until you’re satisfied that the flow is logical and all of your ideas are well represented. If the sequence doesn’t flow quite right, don’t hesitate to rearrange them again.
  5. Gather feedback and revise as needed: The storyboard is your sandbox. Once the storyboard has been laid out you may begin the inquest. Have the members of your technical communications team bombard it with questions. The answers will aid you in determining if there are any gaps in knowledge or weak points that might confuse the consumer.  You can add more panels to fill in gaps or remove panels that really don’t fit.   The visual aspect of each panel aids you in seeing the big picture and allows you to easily make changes. It’s much simpler to change the location of a few panels than it is to redo portions of the project as your create it. Doing a thorough job during the storyboarding process will help simplify final production.
  6. Get sign-off from the stakeholders: When you’re comfortable that the “i’s” are dotted and the “t’s” are crossed and your stakeholders agree in writing, you can start production.

 

Conclusion

The strength of a storyboard lies within its visual component. It allows you to conceptualize how your technical communications project will look and feel by laying it out–you can get the big picture. It provides a masterful means of collaboration to ensure the project goals are fully met. The storyboard provides an easy way to make adjustments before production, and it becomes the framework on which you can assemble all the elements for a roadmap to production.

 

Storyboard Resources for Technical Communicators:

Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storyboard. Lacks some citations but gives some general information.

Storyboards in film making: http://curiosity.discovery.com/question/how-are-storyboards-used-filmmaking H

Complex storyboards: http://www.storyboards-east.com/storybrd.htm

Josh Sheppard http://www.thestoryboardartist.com/Site/Home.html

Storyboard video Examples: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qevacrF0eJE

http://www.presentationteam.com/presentation-tips/presentation-storyboarding

http://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2009/01/lessons-from-the-art-of-storyboarding.html

http://filmmakeriq.com/2008/09/disney-the-art-of-storyboarding/

Template_StoryboardMaster

 

Storyboard Software:

For a Fee: http://www.powerproduction.com/storyboard_quick.html

For Free: http://www.atomiclearning.com/storyboardpro

Greg Larson

Greg Larson splits his professional hours between writing for TechWhirl.com and being a technical analyst, where he has created many help and instruction guides and recently moved into the world of video demonstrations. He is passionate about bringing complex subject matter to a level where the layperson can better understand it.

Read more articles from Greg Larson

Try Doc-To-Help Today