What is a storyboard?

Posted by Greten on 21 Oct 2020 under Terms

A storyboard is a written document that includes the content, visual elements, audio script, animation ques, and interactive process. The process of storyboarding started in animation and motion pictures and is now used in other media such as novels, software development, and of course, elearning development.

The purpose of storyboard is to provide you with a plan that will guide the development of the elearning lesson, similar to the lesson plans that teachers prepare to guide on how to conduct the lecture and learning activities inside the classroom. Another purpose of a storyboard is to have a unified vision of the end product, the learning module, among the different stakeholders.

Storyboard allows the stakeholders to have a unified vision

The storyboard allows the different stakeholders to collaborate and understand how the final elearning course or lesson will appear even before its development starts. These stakeholders are the project owner, subject-matter expert (SME), instructional designer, and elearning developer.

The first stakeholder is the SME, who is usually the same, but can also be a different person from the project owner. The subject-matter expert is the person who has expertise on the topic covered by the planned elearning lesson. The project owner is the person who commissioned or requested an elearning course for their team members or their customers, for example, the manager of the department who will use the elearning course. These stakeholders can see what content will appear in the lesson and how you plan to present them. They can make comments, request alternations, add or reduce content, or provide recommendations. It's entirely possible that during your initial meeting with the stakeholders, some crucial details were glossed-over or not mentioned; either they forgot it, or you were not able to include it in your notes. Thus, the storyboard provides another layer of sign-off for stakeholders.

The instructional designer and the elearning developer can be the same person or two different people; these terms are often interchangeable because many companies hire people with the skillset for both roles. An instructional designer provides expertise on how people learn and what motivated them and apply it in the elearning development. The instructional designer obtains information from the SMEs, sorts and divides the information into sizeable chunks, and provides a plan (a.k.a. storyboard) to learn each chunk of information. The elearning developer works on the multimedia application or elearning authoring tool (e.g., Captivate, Storyline) to turn the storyboard into a final elearning product. Hence, the storyboard provides the bridge between the instructional designer, who prepares it, and the elearning developer, who implements it. Even if they are the same person, it's still easier to have a plan to follow through.

The learners are also stakeholders, but their participation comes at the latter stage of the development cycle after the elearning module or course is already published. The learners' participation involves providing feedback that can be useful in the next version of the lesson or course. Thus, they don't get to see the storyboard.

Common elements of a storyboard

A storyboard contains the content, descriptions, and processes of the elearning lesson. At a minimum, a storyboard should provide the following: script, onscreen text, and visuals (sometimes graphics or illustrations).

The script is the audio narration that the learners can hear as they watch the elearning module. It contains the bulk of the details, and thus, an excellent strategy is to write the script first and then derive the onscreen text from it. However, you can organize the script only as sentences, clauses, and paragraphs. It's not advisable to write scripts with bullets or parentheses. When writing scripts, think of it as something that a person will read during audio recording. If you cannot read it without constantly thinking when and how long to pause, you might need to rewrite it.

The onscreen text refers to words, sentences, captions, and labels that the learner can see on the screen. An example of onscreen text are the labels that point to specific parts of a complex system, such as a flower or the human digestive system. Suppose there is a part of the narration that you want to emphasize, for example, a mistake a software user can accidentally make that will delete a large chunk of data. In that case, you might want to display the part of the narration stating that with a warning icon. For the sake of our discussion about storyboards, we will not consider closed captions as onscreen text, although technically, it is because it draws from the script, and its purpose is to aid hearing-impaired learners. Unlike the script, you can be more organized with onscreen text; you can use bulleted and numbered lists, tables, and parentheses.

Visuals are the images, pictures, illustrations, diagrams, graphs, or screen captures that are on the slide. The visuals in your storyboard can be any of the following:

  • Description of the visual that you want, "An employee poses to knock on a close door. The door has a glass, through which the manager can be seen talking on the phone."
  • A reference to your company assets, "Use IMG043.JPEG in the Scenes folder of our Google drive."
  • A rough sketch or doodle of what you want to appear on the slide.
  • A reference to similar illustration, "Something like https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mature_flower_diagram.svg" or you may also want to copy the image and embed it on your storyboard. You may or may not use the reference illustration on your final elearning lesson either due to copyright restrictions or it does not suit the style of the rest of the lesson or course.

Script, onscreen text, and visuals are sufficient if you are making simple elearning slideshows. However, the main advantage of elearning modules to other media is that the learners can interact with them. You can also animate what are otherwise static visuals. Thus, you might also want to provide animation details and interactive process.

Animation details provide timing and descriptions of how the onscreen text and visuals animate. A good way of writing an animation detail is to have the timing depend on the audio instead of a timeline mark. Instead of writing "Have the label 'petal' appear at 5 seconds from the start and disappear 1.5 seconds after it appeared.", write "Have the label 'petal' appear as its mention in the audio begin and disappear as its mention end." Better yet, you can make a general statement for all labels, "Have each label of a part of the flower appear on the slide for the duration that it is mentioned in the audio."

The interaction process provides a direction of what interactive elements are present and how they work. For example, "Previous button: when clicked, go to the previous slide. Next button: when clicked, go to the next slide." It can also involve several interactive elements such as, "Click on a part of the flower to jump to the slide that covers it in detail." The interactive element can be in the form of exercise, "Click the top speech bubble. Display: You're correct. Then, continue to the next slide. Click the middle or bottom speech bubble. Display: Try again. Reset the slide and let the learner try again. Two tries are allowed." In general, the interaction process has two parts: interaction trigger (Click button. Click a part of image.) and consequence (Display message. Move to slide n.)

Written and visual storyboards

My initial thought is to title this section as "kinds of storyboard", but storyboards come in different forms that pinning them into just two kinds is not entirely accurate. The most important is that all stakeholders agree on the structure and understand the storyboard. While not strictly kinds of storyboards, most storyboards are either written or visual storyboards.

Written storyboards

A written or text-based storyboard is a table containing the content, descriptions, and processes of the elearning lesson.

Slide Script Onscreen
Visual Animation Interaction
3 A flower has several parts that help it function as the plant's reproductive organ. These parts are petal, sepal, anther, filament, stigma, style, and ovary. petal sepal anther filament stigma style ovary A cross section of a flower, with lines connecting the onscreen text to the specific parts. Each onscreen text and the line connecting it to a part of the flower should appear and disappear together as the audio mentions it, except for the last one, which stays on the slide until the end. At the end of the slide, all onscreen text captions and lines that disappeared will reappear. Next button - slide is paused until it is clicked so the learners can see all labels pointing to different parts of a flower.
4 Anther refers to any of the several structures that produce the pollen grains and keep them until they are carried away by pollinating agents such as wind or insects. Anther

  • Produce pollen grains
  • Holds pollen grains until they are carried away by pollinating agents
A close-up of an anther, showing different lobes and the upper part of its filament.


The visual and the text for "anther" are static and present for the slide's whole duration. Other onscreen text lines appearing as they are mentioned in the narration and stays for the rest of the slide. No interaction

Instructional designers typically prepare written storyboards using word processors such as LibreOffice Writer, Google Docs, or Microsoft Word. You can print it and provide a hard copy to stakeholders who are more comfortable working on paper. Depending on the number of columns you have, it can be a good idea to set your document to landscape, so none of the columns become too narrow.

Visual storyboards

The visual storyboard emphasizes the appearance of the elearning slides. It conveys the position of visual elements and onscreen text on the slide. Instead of describing the visual elements, a visual storyboard provides a rough draft, a sample placeholder image, or even the image intended for the final elearning lesson provided it is something that the company or one of the stakes holder own.

Screen capture of Google Slides with slide notes visible.

Instructional designers usually prepare visual storyboards using slide presentation programs such as LibreOffice Impress, Google Slides, and Microsoft PowerPoint. The visual elements and onscreen text are on the slide, while the audio script is entered in the slide notes. The animation details and interaction process can either go to the slide notes below the script or in a floating textbox that looks different from what you use for onscreen text and covers minimal visual elements. In either of these cases, you must explicitly label animation and interactive as such.

Another option for animation details is to use the animation features of the slide presentation program. However, it has the following disadvantage:

  • It can cost more time to set up the animation than describe it.
  • Some stakeholders might request a hard copy of the storyboard. They will have no idea how the animation works.
  • Some of the animations available to slide presentations are not readily available to elearning authoring tools.

It's a great idea to use slide presentation animations if the slide presentation itself is the final product; it can be the case in the following situations.

  • You intend to use the slide presentation in a virtual classroom or virtual instructor-led training.
  • The Google Slides is the elearning module; this is feasible because Google Slides are viewable through a browser. An LMS can display it and then have all the quizzes be taken within the LMS instead of within the elearning module.
  • You are using an elearning development add-on for slide presentation software, such as Ispring Suite for PowerPoint.
  • You can also import PowerPoint presentations to Storyline and Captivate, but in my experience, the results are not pretty, such as inconsistent animation and running properly only when exported as Flash SWF file.

In the above cases, you're not just creating a storyboard but is already dwelling on rapid prototyping, which is another way of presenting elearning plans to stakeholders.

Hybrid storyboards

There is no rule saying that a storyboard can only be written or visual. Different organizations have different templates, and even individual instructional designers have different ways of using those templates. For example, an instructional designer might provide a rough sketch in the visual column of a written storyboard instead of a descriptive text if a sketch can better convey the elearning lesson they have in mind than a written description.

Slide Script Onscreen
Visual Animation Interaction
3 A flower has several parts that help it function as the plant's reproductive organ. These parts are petal, sepal, anther, filament, stigma, style, and ovary. petal sepal anther filament stigma style ovary A cross section of a flower showing its different parts: petals, sepals, anther, filament, stigma, style, ovary. Each onscreen text and the line connecting it to a part of the flower should appear and disappear together as the audio mentions it, except for the last one, which stays on the slide until the end. At the end of the slide, all onscreen text captions and lines that disappeared will reappear. Next button - slide is paused until it is clicked so the learners can see all labels pointing to different parts of a flower.

In the same manner, an instructional designer can use slide templates to put a descriptive text rather than an image.

Overall, writing a storyboard depends on what all stakeholders involved: project owners, SMEs, instructional designers, and elearning developers can easily understand. Internal company culture and dynamics also play a role in how elearning storyboards are written.


A storyboard is a written document containing the content, visual elements, and audio script that will appear in an elearning lesson and detailed plans on how the animations and interactive processes are going to work. It is an elearning plan that SMEs can edit, and elearning developers can implement. Companies and organizations that have internal learning and development teams have their storyboard templates, with most templates being either written or visual storyboards. Still, organizations and individual instructional designers have so much freedom on how to use these templates that sometimes, the distinction between them is blurred.


Last updated on 17 Jan 2021.

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Instructional design and educational technology for effective learning