Five Tips for Elearning Storyboards

In the 1930s, a Disney animator called Webb Smith did something which has a surprising impact on the world of educational technology today. He started to doodle sequential scenes for a new cartoon and pin them up on the walls of his office, instead of describing the plot with words.

The story goes that this was the beginning of the storyboard, a way of planning cartoons which allowed the Walt Disney studio to create works with greater visual and storytelling complexity. Today’s feature animations are planned in a similar way.

Storyboards for Pixar Animation Studio's Up
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Storyboards for Pixar Animation Studio’s Up

Elearning developers use a variation on the technique because they are faced with many similar challenges. Like cartoons, good elearning should have a plot or structure which needs to be refined.  It’s useful to be able to experiment by placing events in a different order without getting caught in the fine details of design or programming. In effect, the storyboard is a first draft which is relatively quick to create and to edit. Here are some tips for creating storyboards, no cork boards and pins required.

Don’t race too far ahead

First of all, make sure you are ready to begin making your storyboard. Do you have a basic outline of the course? Do you have clear concepts for the elearning activities that will form the course? Have you considered a framework like action mapping? If yes, then you are ready to start dividing that information into screens using a storyboard. If no, then take a step back. When you have decided you are ready to begin, remember that storyboarding and building are two different processes.

 One of the reasons I use PowerPoint for my storyboards rather than jumping straight into an elearning authoring tool is that it eliminates the temptation to begin to build the course too soon.

A storyboard should focus on content, not the fiddly details of creating an interaction. If you’re sinking into variables, triggers and hyperlinks than you’re not storyboarding. You could be wasting time if the content you are creating ultimately has to be cut or changed. It’s more efficient to keep things simple at the storyboard stage. Get something that you and your stakeholders are happy with, then begin to build.

Show, don’t tell!

 The strength of the storyboard is its visual nature. A storyboard shouldn’t require lengthy explanations about how things will work. Instead of writing, “This screen will have four buttons on it,” show the buttons. Even though design elements can be finalised later, concentrate on how you use the space on your canvas. 

This is useful for SMEs and other stakeholders, allowing them to envision the finished product much better when giving feedback. If you do need to add in something which wouldn’t be immediately obvious from a static image, try to limit it to a few quick notes. This is another reason why I’m a PowerPoint fan: the built-in notes feature!

Keep things Organised

Although you should lean into the storyboard’s visual nature, there are times when detail is important. I’m a big fan of complex branching scenarios with multiple endings. The problem is,  these can be very tricky to keep track of at the storyboard stage. I try to name slides logically and use that handy notes section to keep straight what buttons eventually link to where.

This helps to avoid broken links and muddled navigation in the finished course. You might find that creating a flow chart diagram of your user’s various branching choices and outcomes helps.

Be self-critical

When you are in the process of building a course, it’s easy to focus on details and little polishing touches. At the storyboard stage you are better able to step back and look over your work as a whole. Take advantage of that by considering your work with a critical eye. Ask yourself how swapping events would change the flow of your work, try out different structures and concentrate on how things flow together. If you have time, it’s always useful to take a break after completing a story board (even if its just a few hours) to see it with fresh eyes before beginning revisions. Alternatively, get a colleague to look. A new pair of eyes can offer a new perspective.

Use the Online Community

Finally, remember that you aren’t alone. There are lots of free resources available which can help you concentrate on producing your best work.  Consider using one of the many free elearning storyboard templates provided by the wider elearning community. Read around about different approaches.

At GLAD we know that taking the time to storyboard leads to brilliant elearning. Get in touch with us at to learn more. You can also follow us on Twitter.

#eLearning #Storyboards

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