Friday, January 22, 2010

The Idiot’s Guide to Storyboarding!

(Warning and Disclaimer: Those who have not watched the movie 3 Idiots may find it difficult to relate to the 3 I references. No attempts to lay claims on the box office proceeds from the movie. ;)

I enjoyed watching 3 Idiots so did 200 odd people sitting in the theater. The movie achieved its goal – entertain the audience, engage them, and connect with them. I began to watch closely and have listed the first 5 storyboarding lessons from 3 Idiots. Shouldn't our learning courses also engage our learners, connect with them, and motivate them to learn?

1) Creating a Persona

Look at persona creation of VIRUS. When you build a persona it has to be well rounded - the personality or characterization has to be consistent across situations and events from the beginning to the end. Although the focus is on another idea or a thought, the characters stay true to the persona and consistently exhibit the characteristics.

Let's extrapolate this lesson to an eLearning storyboard. We often use characters such as experts, learners, wanna-be learners who follow the expert, secondary personae and/or influencer-personae (for example a team member, a client, or a negative character). These characters should ideally play a critical role in learning.

Typically, when IDs think of characters in storyboards, the characters emerge as props, rarely are they key to the delivery of the message. Whether we like it or not, we keep emphasizing the content and do not focus on the message. The outcome is that we create screens of content using fancy graphics, pictures, tabs etc. And, the characters simply fill spaces between content. We lose the opportunity of using them effectively to deliver the message.

Some interesting examples where characters aid the learning process:

(Courtesy: (Courtesy:

Am sure learners can identify the on-screen characters and relate them with the message easily!

2) Flow and transition

What distinguishes a good storyboard from a poor one? It is the flow and transition between scenes. The 3I storyboard exhibits this in great detail and at several instances. In fact, transition between scenes is the hallmark of good cinematography as well. You will find this common across all great movies that you've seen till date, think about it.

In the 3 Idiots storyboard, transition is used effectively to move seamlessly across time - from past to the present. Many filmmakers use this tactic to connect scenes from the past and the present, to connect thoughts and actions, actions and reactions, and to bridge distances - resulting in tighter and smarter story lines!

3) Minimal jazz

Apart from the regular dose of song and dance, the movie did not spend on expensive foreign locales and action effects. Most scenes have a clear connect to the objective of the story that goes a long way in holding audience attention.

In the context of an eLearning storyboard, avoid jazz if it does not add value to the story. Avoid all these extravagant effects such as a "spinning logo" or an unwanted animation of how board meeting is in progress or a video of the floor of the bank that have zero or minimal impact on learning. Stick to a tightly woven storyboard and add effects "only" where necessary.

Below is an example of a storyboard with a simple yet effective layout.

(Courtesy: (Courtesy: The above is a visual treat but may not have a great impact on learning.

4) Abundant examples

What stands out in the 3I storyboard is the abundant use of examples. The design goal seems to be "do not preach" "demonstrate". Every scene is actually an example or a combination of examples. This makes it so easy for the audience to relate and absorb the message without it being forced down their throat. The movie is full of examples that describe Rancho's unconventional wisdom - the ragging scene, the scenes where he demonstrates to Kareena the futility of marrying a "price tag", or the many scenes where he interacts with his professors in an unconventional manner.

We all know that examples make it easier for learners to relate to the content or the message. But it is also important to ensure that examples are relevant, interesting and humorous.

5) Voice-over narration

If you notice, in movies like 3I, Lage Raho Munnabhai, and Rang De Basanti (and other popular Bollywood hits), the voice over narration is lively, interesting, witty, and funny. It perfectly complements the on-screen scene. In 3I, the voice over narrative acts as a transition between scenes. It introduces the scene and then lets the characters play out the scene. This brings a perfect balance between the voice-over narrative and the on-screen scenes.

This is something that IDs must remember while storyboarding. Audio has always been a controversial element in eLearning. The easy way out of this controversy has been "add audio" on all screens so that a course has audio consistently. Therefore, audio, which is otherwise a powerful element of design typically ends up being a redundant verbal instruction or narration of what we see on the screen. During numerous learner testing, we have seen learners turn-off the audio because it hinders thought process in self-paced learning. However, if the audio is interesting, informative, and adds value to on-screen information, then learners will have sufficient motivation to listen to the audio.

A good eLearning should be a complete package. The storyboard, character selection, dialogs, music, cinematography, and editing must blend well to form a great learning material. Another critical element used abundantly is humor. It easily connects with the audience and establishes a rapport with them. This helps establish trust and get the audience involved at a cognitive level. Drama, pathos, surprise etc are all handled with a touch of humor. The description of the "poor" and "poverty stricken" family has a touch of humor that drives the point yet does not make the audience uncomfortable.

Why can’t our storyboards be more human and less digital? During one of the conferences I had attended last year, one of the speakers questioned - "Why can't eLearning be exciting and entertaining like cricket and Bollywood?" Many other speakers jumped at him saying "eLearning is about learning while cricket and Bollywood are for entertainment." And the debate can go on... But the point is why can't we make learning more interesting and entertaining? This can definitely solve the big problem of motivation for learners!

I guess we need to consider digital learning less literally and design for real learners. What are your thoughts - should our storyboards be as entertaining as our Bollywood flicks?


Archana Narayan said...

This is truly a great guide for IDs :)
1. Like you mentioned, one must work out the characterizations and the flow of the course even before they get down to storyboarding. It makes the design much more effective. We should think about how the scenes will fall into place, review it and only then begin page level designs. Even if characters are playing smaller role in the course, it is crucial to define them give them traits, a background.

I completely agree with you. If you enjoy it, you will understand it, you will internalize it. I think the more fun it is, the better we learn.

sharbori said...

Yes we all agree but we often than not work for clients who have defined requirements and standards. Hence to adhere to the technicalities we forget to be more entertaining in our designs. Who will educate our stakeholders??

Geeta Bose said...

Thanks Archie! It is very important today especially coz learners have shorter attention span than ever before. Fun learning can be a great motivation for learners.

@Sharbori: Agree with your concerns. I believe that as IDs it is our responsibility to educate our stakeholders about the value of good design. We often begin with small "baby steps" to educate them about best practices. When they see results, it is easy to obtain their buy-in. But yes, this is a long process.

You've inspired me, let me blog about our experiences of handling such situations. :) Thanks!

Arman said...

Excellent write up :-)

RUpadhyay said...

What a great idea to use "3 Idiots" to describe how instructional designers should set up their storyboards - by making sure the audience is engaged, but not overwhelmed with unnecessary "fluff." In particular, I like what you said about creating characters and personas for your storyboards, and making the instruction more "human rather than digital." I wonder the same thing as the other commenters, however. How do you present this idea to a client who is more worried about the content to be taught rather than engaging the audience to which you must teach it? I am very much interested to read about your experiences with such clients in the future. As a graduate student of Instructional Technology, I have not had as much practice building storyboards, but I feel like I learned so much from your post.

Sahara said...

I stumbled across your blog and have been very interested in your comments about storyboarding in eLearning!

I speak from the point of view of an eLearner - most of the training delivered by my international company is electronic-based. In particular, I agree with what you said about audio! Most of the time it was a voice-over merely reading the text of a virtual powerpoint slide, and was useless. On the other hand, my computer at the office does not have working speakers, so when the audio contains information which is exclusively audio and cannot be accessed in any other way, I do not get the full benefit. One thing I have appreciated is the opportunity to choose at the beginning of a training whether I have audio or not - then when I do not, the text of the audio (or an edited version) is provided in a sidebar or some other format for me to read.

Geeta Bose said...

Appreciate your comments Sahara. One needs to be very careful while using audio for eLearning.

When we design learning, we do substantial research to understand the learner - his/her needs, wants, motivations, learning environment, and factors influencing their learning. Often, this info helps us determine the type of audio; whether or not to use audio, audio with/without transcript, pace & tone of audio etc.

You can read the article below for guidelines about using audio.

Satish said...

I just came across your blog while preparing for an interview as an ID. I enjoyed it immensely and learnt much out of it. Whether we create a bollywood movie or a cricket T20 in learning depends on a lot of factors.

There are people i believe whose lives have been changed by an inspirational movie, book, story or a single quote.

Make learning fun. How do people have fun, the most fun. If we take a poll, i am only guessing here, it's in the adventure undertaken. That's exactly what's missing. No adventure in learning. With adventure comes all things, fun, learning....

As you said, a character and the name of the character should speak and convey things even without being said.

Sameen Borker said...

I stumbled on your blog, and I have to stop to say that this article was very informative. It's important that our storyboards are well thought out and the analogy with 3 idiots is a rather good one. Also, it shows how much you liked the movie.

Good luck with blogging! :-)

Geeta Bose said...

Thanks Sameen for your kind words. Yes, I certainly loved the movie - loved the entire execution.

I wish the everyday eLearning is more ‘fun & learn‘ and less ‘preach & teach‘!