Storyboard It


Meet Alex Cowan, entrepreneur (5x), intrapreneur (1x), author, and instructor at General Assembly. He’s also the author of ‘Starting a Tech Business’. When he’s not teaching at GA, he’s often found advising companies and posting instructional materials for innovators and instructions on In this first entry of his series on storyboarding posts, Alex lays out the basics and explains how storyboarding can help anyone, in any career path.

Communicating is hard and arguing is worse. And we’re probably much less effective communicators than we think — possibly as much as 20x less effective. In 1990 a Stanford researcher performed a study where on one party (“tapper”) tapped out a simple song a a counterparty (“listener”) tried to interpret the song. The tapper thought their listener had recognized the song 50% of the time where they’d actually only got it 2.5% of the time (this from the book ‘Made to Stick’). Unlike rhythmic tapping, storyboards inherently make us better communicators.

As a writer, you’re constantly learning how to be a better storyteller. As a Storyboarding-Three-Little-Pigs-Vertprogrammer, one hugely important skill is learning to think sequentially. And since you’re on the GA site, you probably don’t need convincing about the importance of strong visual communication. The process of storyboarding improves your communication on all three fronts:

  1. It’s narrative, helping us tell our story
  2. It’s sequential, helping us walk through complex ideas
  3. It’s visual, helping us engage more of our audience’s facilities

Disney is cited as the first example of storyboarding in its modern form where they used it to organize The 3 Little Pigs. Before that everyone sat in a room together and hoped all the stuff they drew fit together at the end. This element of practicality and forethought is one end of storyboarding; the other is creative freedom. The practice of storyboarding does a nice job of balancing these.

Your Next Storyboard

If you’re in sales, marketing, design, engineering, management — basically anything that involves explaining or discussing with others — storyboarding will help you more effectively structure and communicate your ideas. When you’re getting started, I advise putting a framework around what you plan to storyboard. Below are five examples.

1. The Before & After Storyboard

You’re thinking of building something- a physical product, an application, or maybe a new process. Why? How is it going to make your target’s life better? And, by the way, who’s it for? The before and after storyboard helps make these answers more vivid, more actionable, and easier to discuss.

An example: I use a (fictional) example company called Enable Quiz in my book. They offer lightweight technical quizzes for anyone looking to assess the skill sets of engineers they’re looking to hire. The personas are ‘Helen the HR Manager’, ‘Chris the Candidate’, and ‘Frank the Functional Manager’. Helen’s responsible for doing initial interviews, Chris is being interviewed for the job, and Frank’s the hiring manager (Chris’ hypothetical future boss).

The panels below show a before and after for Enable Quiz’s customers:


2. Customer Acquisition & Retention/Customer Journey

How do you take someone who’s never heard of your product and transform them into an evangelist? We tend to focus on the high points that we think are obvious and miss the little details that are actually giant crevices through which we’re losing customers.

Storyboarding helps you think through the journey sequentially, making sure you’ve actually connected the dots. I like to use the AIDA(OR) framework: attention, interest, desire, action, onboarding and retention. I like to use one panel per item, sometimes creating several alternative journeys.

3. Storyboarding Agile User Stories

If you’re in software development, you’ve probably heard of agile (a set of techniques that take ‘user stories’ as the primary input and produce working software in small, incremental, success-based iterations.)  Agile’s a great way to build product, but how do you keep the user stories that are its critical input from becoming stale and arbitrary? How do you make sure they represent real things that real people really want to do?

You guessed it- storyboarding! I like to storyboarding the ‘epic’ agile user stories that encapsulate large chunks of functionality after I write them but before I detail the individual stories that underlie the epic. This makes the stories more ‘real’, more readily testable, and easier to evaluate in retrospect when you’re evaluating outcomes.

4. Storyboarding the Hook Model

I use Nir Eyal’s Hook Model to think through the user habits I’m trying to create. The model describes four phases to user involvement:

  • Trigger: What prompts the customer to use your product? Is it internal? External
  • Action: What is the minimum possible action they have to take to get what they want? A reward?
  • Variable Reward: How is the user gratified by using the product? Rewards that vary are more habit forming.
  • Investment: How does the user’s ongoing use of the product deepen their involvement?

The model itself does a nice job of helping us thinks sequentially and substantially about user habits and storyboarding is a great way to tease out your own application of the model.

5. Explaining HSW

If you’re an expert at something, how do you explain how it works to others that want to know? The ‘curse of knowledge’ makes this hard — most of us forget so many things we know/assume implicitly that the uninitiated struggle with our explanations. Storyboarding is a great way to sketch out sequential explanations that: a) are more likely to hit home; and b) make it easier, more comfortable for your audience to ask questions.

Interested in more detail? I’ll be following this post with five more: one on each of the topics above and a final post with some applied tips for storyboarding.

Ready to Execute?

Get started with storyboarding is a lot easier than you probably think. If you’re ready to roll, I can suggest:

1. Online Workshop

I make the workshop I do available online: Storyboarding Workshop. You’ll find structured exercises you can do individually or with a team. For the storyboards themselves, there are notes on pre-produced storyboarding squares you can use as well as online app’s.

2. Class at GA-SF on April 30th

If you’re in the SF Bay Area, I teach a class at General Assembly. The next session’s on Wednesday, April 30th: GA Storyboarding Class.