Revealed: Shocking Secrets of a Storyboard Pro

kevin-thornIn this interview, Kevin Thorn of NuggetHead Studioz fame, reveals the shocking storyboarding secrets you’ve always wondered about but were afraid someone might answer. Read on to glimpse the inner workings of a storyboard master.

COACH: When you have a story concept, what’s the first thing you do to carry the idea through to see if it’s instructionally feasible?
I sketch. Literally, I carry a Moleskine with me wherever I go and when I get ideas I sketch them out in a storyboard fashion or visual narrative. Those concepts may or may not manifest into an elearning course, though.

COACH:What type of storyboard format do you recommend using for stories, scenarios and narratives?
I like PowerPoint mostly. Not only is it a versatile tool to build out a sequential flow, the latest versions (’07 and ’10) have really great graphics tools. Building out a flow you can “see” how the story is structured. Once its laid out, I do the writing in an equivalent Word document.

COACH:How do you first visualize the flow of a story? Do you start with the key frames and then add the in-between details later? Do you diagram it?
Yes! Keyframes. I’m an old school animation keyframer so I suppose I carry over those habits. Keyframing is really a great method and correlates nicely into storytelling and elearning. If you think of a typical story arc: opening, characters, environment, conflict, climax, resolution, conclusion, etc., each of those can be keyframes to help map out the whole concept of your story. Then go back and fill in the ‘in-betweens’.

COACH: What is your storyboarding process?
The process starts in some sort of sketch. Whether that’s in my Moleskine or on grid paper, more often than not I start every project with a pencil. No matter what digital tool you prefer, sketching with a pencil is fluid, portable, and quick to make changes (erase) and no one cares what it looks like at that point. Once it’s sketched out relative to what my mind’s eye is seeing I typically move to PowerPoint to build out the flow. From there I use that as my map for developing in any tool I want.

COACH: One problem people have with sketching, is distribution. Do you scan or photocopy your storyboards to distribute to clients and team members?
KEVIN:I don’t see distribution as a problem—at least not in today’s market of having access to several means of delivery. I’ve taken a photo of a pencil sketch in my Moleskine and emailed or even sent it as a text message to a client. It’s a concept at that point and that’s really what you’re trying to convey. Other methods include scanning in the pencil sketch and then using one of several graphic editing tools to ‘ink’ it.

COACH: How many iterations do you typically go through before you’re satisfied with the storyboard?
KEVIN: Great question! I’ve never counted. Several I suppose. The first sketch is never the final storyboard. Even if I rework the sketch several times, the final storyboard typically gets moved around once it starts to take shape. Attempting to answer this question I’d have to say at least a half dozen times.

COACH:How can people communicate their visual ideas when they think they can’t draw?
I LOVE this question! It’s not about drawing at all. It’s about using simple shapes and lines to visually communicate a concept. For example, if I wanted to convey the concept of time I would simply draw a circle, place a dot in the middle of that circle, add several dots around the inside perimeter of that circle, and two arrows pointing in somewhat opposite directions from the center dot. A clock. A watch. Anyone can do that! What helps separate the mind from “I can’t draw” is what Dave Gray refers to as a Visual Alphabet which is simply a collection of shapes, lines, and dots.

COACH: What are common mistakes beginners make when they first start storyboarding stories and narratives?
In my view the mistake is not about stumbling through their first storyboards rather not storyboarding at all and jumping right to development. How can you build a house without a blueprint? How can you build eLearning or a good narrative story without an outline—storyboard? Beginner mistakes made early on while storyboarding is not getting out of the linear thought process. Example:

See Spot run. Up the tree. To chase the cat.


  • See Felix the cat. A sly and cunning cat that likes to tease Spot.
  • Spot is a gullible neighborhood dog who pretends he’s king of the land with a bark louder than his bite.
  • Charleston the grand oak tree is known by all the neighborhood pets as Uncle Charlie. Just like any favorite uncle, he plays with all the young ones and lets them jump and crawl all over him yet he’s constantly protective.
  • Felix darts passed Spot as if to say, “Catch me if you can” and climbs to the top of Uncle Charlie. Spot chases after Felix as fast as he can but is too slow for the agile cat. Spot’s commanding bark suggests he’s ordering Felix out of the tree. Felix can wait longer than Spot can bark, and Uncle Charlie just enjoys the attention.

Not the best or even an eLearning example, but a demonstration that the first two sections introduce the main characters. The 3rd section introduces the supporting character and environment. While the last section presents the climax. If laid out in a storyboard keyframe each and work those paths a little deeper and then circle back around to the main objective.

COACH: Do you have any advice to help people improve how they visualize stories?
When in doubt, sketch. Doodle. Draw boxes and lines and dots. Stick figures are perfectly fine if all you’re doing is conveying a concept. All the great visual stories we’re all familiar with were developed by a team. Someone may have done the actual artwork, but someone else had to sketch out the story and storyboards for an artist to follow. The same goes with elearning where an Instructional Designer has to have a clear set of storyboards to pass on to the graphic artist(s) and/or developers.

COACH: Kevin has kindly donated storyboard templates and other templates related to Articulate Presenter at the Storyboard Depot page on this site.

Thanks for a great interview, Kevin. Check out Kevin’s website at LearnNuggets and connect on Twitter: @LearnNuggets.

Get The eLearning Coach delivered to your Inbox twice a month, with articles, tips and resources. Also you can download my eBook, No More Spilled Ink: Writing for Instructional Design. Sign up below. Your email address will never be shared.


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