Storyboard Your Way to Success

It happens all the time. You find out you have a presentation to give and … your first stop is PowerPoint. Or Keynote. Or Google Slides. Regardless of your slide design tool of choice, the problem comes from the fact that our first thought isn’t a thought at all. It’s deferring our presentation planning to a software application.

When it comes to writing, I often say we live in a first-draft culture. We dash off emails hastily—without proofreading—in an effort to get to the much-coveted status of inbox zero. But this comes with a cost. And that cost is often ineffective communication. The solution with writing is to continue writing and refining instead of just hitting send.

Presentation is a little different. Instead of adding more time proofing after the fact (never a bad idea) we need to add time before clicking on that software icon. We need to answer some key questions about our presentation first. After that, we need to do some sketching before starting our slide design.

Planning Questions

First things first. And your first thing in presentation planning should be answering some key questions to ground your work.

  • Who are they? Start by understanding your audience—who they are and what’s important to them.
  • Why are you in front of them? Communication expert Nancy Duarte notes that the big idea of any presentation should be made up of two things: what you know and what’s at stake for your audience. It’s important not to forget this last ingredient. That connects what you know and why it matters to the people you’re in front of.
  • What do you want to happen as a result of this? The call to action. Theoretically, you’re here for a reason. What do you want your audience to do when you’re done? If you’re stuck, start with a verb. Do you want them to agree, fund, support, etc.?
  • What visuals will help you tell this story? We’re not to slide design yet but start by asking yourself if there’s something that you can show your audience that will help you make your case.

And now we open our presentation software, right? Wrong. Before we do that, we need to learn a lesson from the entertainment industry.

Lessons from Pixar

Nearly five and a half hours north of Hollywood in Emeryville, California, sits the campus of Pixar Animation Studios. Known worldwide as a leader in cutting-edge animation and storytelling, you might not think that your business has much in common with Pixar. But there’s at least one value that Pixar shares with nearly every other organization—employee time is their most valuable asset.

Before Pixar animators create a single pixel, they crudely sketch out every beat of action in every scene of the movie. Storyboarding dates back to the earliest days of hand-drawn animation. This practice provides a map the team can follow as they begin the process of computer animation. Again, like your organization, Pixar’s most valuable resource is the time of its team members.

It can take months to animate even simple things like the bubbles in the ocean that surround Nemo or the individual blue hairs on Sully from Monsters, Inc. To use this time effectively, they need to know where every element is at every moment in the story before they start the time-consuming work of animation.

Time Well Spent

Your time is valuable too. Before you open your design software, sketch out the slides that you need. You can use anything—a legal pad, a whiteboard, a piece of printer paper—but my favorite for two reasons is sticky notes. First, they force you to be clear and concise with your slides. Second, they’re sticky! You can move them around and re-arrange these rough-draft slides as you figure out how these ideas go together.

Storyboarding is important as it helps you provide your presentation content with structure first. It also helps you avoid another trap that can present itself when you start with presentation software.

In her book Storytelling with Data, Cole Nussbaumer-Knaflic cautions that when we start the presentation process on the computer, we can form an attachment to what we create. Think of it like art class, where you end up falling in love with what you’ve spent hours working on. This attachment can be problematic with slide design as it can keep us from changing something that needs to be changed or isn’t working as it should be.

It’s much easier to throw out a sticky note or cross off an idea on a whiteboard than it may be to scrap a slide you spent all morning on. Once you have your story sketched out, you can sit there with your stack of sticky notes, piece of paper, or whiteboard, and start the work of designing your slides.

At the end of the day, communication tools are only as good as the person using them. And your software will never know more about what you’re trying to communicate than you do. Take time before getting digital to plan your next presentation accordingly.