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Storyboarding a visually-driven story

How we kicked off our most recent collaboration

On the Storytelling Studio, we’re always finding new ways to iterate on our process. For our most recent collaboration with the Vox Video team, In search of Forrest Fenn's treasure, we decided to try something new to us: a storyboarding session. A storyboard is a visual representation of how a story or video will unfold, scene by scene.

Storyboarding sessions are not a new concept for visual storytelling or video production. But we’ve historically kicked off a project with a blue-sky brainstorming meeting rather than structured storyboarding.

This project was ripe for storyboarding because Vox reporters Zack Crockett and Estelle Caswell had a fully reported story in hand. They had a narrative journey with a clear beginning, middle, and end, which gave us all the elements we needed to lay the foundation of the story.

Everyone in the same room, storyboarding with post-its

Get everyone in the same room

Although we are a remote team with people in New York, DC, and Seattle, we like to co-locate for certain meetings. When kicking off a big story or initiative, we try to bring everyone together in person to build trust and collaborate more efficiently, without the stress of AV setups.

Be prepared

After blocking off time for everyone to participate in a day-long storyboarding session, it’s imperative to prepare for the day. Before we all met in the same room, all existing assets for the stories were shared with the full team. That included photos, raw video, notes, a rough outline, and stories from other outlets about this topic. Having those assets enabled everyone to familiarize themselves with the concept before diving into the details of the story day-of.

We also decided on a framework for storyboarding in advance of our session. Without an agenda, no matter how loose, participants don’t know what they’re getting into and often are not prepared at the start of the day. We originally structured our session in a couple parts:

  • Remind ourselves what all good stories have: Sometimes it’s nice to review the basic concepts that make a great story. Doing this provides a roadmap for how to approach piecing together this journey for a given audience. A great visual example of the elements needed for a narrative arc is this simple diagram from Jack Hart’s book Storycraft:
  • Set the stage: To fully immerse yourself in the story, walk through the entire story, outline all the assets you have, and identify what assets you don’t have but might need. For our sessions this was an opportunity for Zack and Estelle, who lived the story, to share everything they knew and felt, and to ensure everyone in the room was on the same page.
  • Storyboarding, part 1: When brainstorming, it’s important to give participants time to think on their own before having a group discussion. Try storyboarding individually, then come together as a group to share.
  • Lunch: Don’t forget to take a break, and to eat!
  • Storyboarding, part 2: Identify different user flows, such as how a user might enter the story, and then have participants spend time thinking through them. Review and critique as a group and then refine the full story outline together.
  • Break: Take a walk, check your email, eat a snack.
  • Show & Tell: Decision makers for the project (this could mean editors, design leadership, engineering leadership, etc.) join the group to review the story outline and identify any gaps or areas for improvement. This allows for candid feedback and is a good time for a gut check.

But even with a perfect agenda, you should...

Be ready to make changes to your agenda on the fly

Once you get started it will become obvious which steps are necessary for a particular story, so be flexible with the schedule. Having a dedicated facilitator who can help take notes and steer everyone in the right direction is also crucial.

After storyboarding the story individually and as a group, we realized everyone was essentially on the same page. Instead of spending more time talking about potential storylines, we focused on identifying a strong climax and resolution. We then moved into talking about visual elements and how and where we needed to integrate them into the story.

Post-it notes laying out parts of the story.

Give yourself enough time

Knowing it would take time to come with an entire storyline for a visual longform, we set aside six hours to spend together. By setting the expectation that it was a full day commitment, we were able to block of the time to focus on the story and avoid distraction from other tasks and projects.

Take breaks

Set aside time for lunch, and a break or two for snacks. Storyboarding is time-consuming and exhausting work. Give participants the opportunity to step away from the session to come back with fresh eyes.

Keep up the momentum

After a long session like this, clearly defining next steps will keep a project moving. For this story, our next steps included writing a rough outline of the copy, determining which video clips or moments we needed, and developing a design language for the story. Throughout the process, rely on your editors for their expertise. For this story, we were lucky to have an editorial editor and a visual editor working in tandem to guide the integration of text, videos, graphics, images and design.

Our final storyboarding artifact.

Read the story: In search of Forrest Fenn’s treasure

Watch Estelle’s 21-minute documentary: The hunt for Forrest Fenn’s $2 million hidden treasure