How I tell a visual story

Recently I worked on a project where I practiced telling a visual story — storyboard. The background about this project is that we were designing a new product. We need to present the strategy to the management team and the rest of the company. One important information for us to deliver through this presentation is why we think our solution will solve our users’ real life problem. Therefore, we need to address the current problems users are experiencing, and what’s our product fit. Instead of having a few bullet points in the presentation to list the features we think we should build, we decided to tell a story. The current user journey versus the desired user journey.

I want to take you through how I tell a visual story. Hopefully some of the tricks I used might help you at some point when you need to tell a story.

Understand the problem

Interview your stakeholders. Ask them what, and why multiple times till you really understand what is the problem your product is trying to solve. Asking why multiple times keep focused on the goal. The goal, I mean by the problems you are trying to solve. Write them down on a piece of post it before you go into the interview. Check with product manager or other stakeholders if these goals are what they want to focus one as well. This gives you a chance to adjust your strategy.

Script first

The next thing I did after understand the problem, I started on writing a script for the story. I use very simple and short sentences to represent the storyboard I’m going to draw. Once sentence represent one board, and I try my best to keep it concise. I found this also helps me focus on the character’s intention, not the what feature your product wants to build, it will end with in a way more sympathetic story. At the same time, its also easier for you to imagine the scene, so later on you can convert them into a slide of drawing.

Post-it

Who doesn’t like Post- it? Draft up your story on post it have few advantages. The agility to move them around is a great advantage in many use cases including storyboard. They are also easy to dispose, this make it convenient for you to iterate on your drawing. Each small post it can be a single board in your story.

Once you have few slides, you can move them around, stick them on a piece of A4 or A3 paper. You will start to see the whole story coming along together. It helps you refine your story, easy to see if the story makes sense. You can also show the draft to other people, ask them to describe the story, it will give you a pretty good idea of if you are on the right track.

Storyboard draft on Post-it

Storyboard draft on Post-it

Don’t be scared.

Now it’s time to draw. Yes, I heard your response. “But I can’t draw a straight line.” Whoever can draw a line, a circle, and a rectangle can draw a story. You don’t need to be an artist to be able to draw. I’m almost certain that you have never heard anyone say that they are no Shakespeare or Hemingway so they can’t write an email. Adding a picture to text or sound increases retention rates by 40%. When we address a large amount of content, visual provide instantaneous recap. This picture doesn’t need to be a piece of art, as long as it’s relevant to the content, people’s brain will register. Therefore, it assists in building empathy with your audience.

5 minutes drawing lesson

When we do math, or writing, we have basic Lego building blocks to help us to formulate our final work. As in writing, we have alphabet to help us to put together words, then words to sentences. In math, we have basic mathematical formulas as 1+1=2. Why don’t we have a visual alphabet? Everything you need in drawing is this 12 basic shapes. Then you can use the combination of these elements to make things. Eventually, you can build your own visual library. I learned this idea of visual alphabet from Dave Gray. He is one of the authors of Gamestorming, such a bright visual thinker. If you are still not convinced that you can draw, check out this video from him, Squiggle Bird.

Sketchnote taken from Dave Gray’s Gamestorming Workshop

Sketchnote taken from Dave Gray’s Gamestorming Workshop

I also want to give you an example of how to combine the basic shapes into something. If you have a pen or any paper around you at the moment, you can follow it.

How to turn shapes into a running man with a suitcase while someone is calling

How to turn shapes into a running man with a suitcase while someone is calling

Somewhere quiet

I work in an open plan office, I find it was hard for me to concentrate on thinking through the story. I like open plan most of times. But for this one, I locked myself up in a small meeting room with headphone and tea for a day and half. I also recommend this to you, especially if you are just starting to try out this and you are shy to let anybody else to see you draw.

Practice, practice, practice

Practice makes perfect. This is the last point, I don’t think I need to elaborate on this further.


At the end, the presentation to the management team went really well. I want to share an observation I had during the presentation with you. They did not interrupt the presenter till they finished the story. After the story has finished, people in the room were able to ask questions about a particular slide in the story. It looked like the story has really resonated with them.

I asked some people who read the story to give me some feedback. Here’s what they said, not in exact words, but the meaning. The visualised story portrayed exactly why the product strategy is more convenient and suitable than a traditional product.

Engage people with visual story, tap on their emotion trigger. Boosting any discussion or event with visual elements makes your spoken words powerful, shareable. And infinitely memorable. I recommend you give it a go next time.