Reflections on storyboarding with researchers

I’ve just finished running a careers session for researchers using the storyboarding technique as part of our Vitae Innovate project. I was working with Jo Sibson from the University of Derby Career Development Centre to deliver the session and we had a useful debriefing afterwards to talk about the session. So I thought that I’d use this post to set down some of my thoughts following the delivery of the session.

If you haven’t come across storyboarding before you probably want to start with Bill Law’s Storyboarding Stockroom which sets out some of the background thinking on the technique and provides ideas and resources for its use. Essentially storyboarding is a technique to help individuals to set down their experiences in a way which helps to facilitate taking action around career and related issues. I find the technique very interesting, but I think that there is still some work to do in effectively translating it into a practical methodology that careers workers can easily use. Essentially this is what the Vitae project is trying to do in relation to researcher and a number of other iCeGS storyboarding projects are attempting to do in relation to other groups.

Before I start talking about the session that we ran I think that it is worth reflecting on the process of engaging students in the storyboarding process. In short, it was bloody hard! The term storyboarding is not one that means very much to students and in general seemed to provoke either disinterest or suspicion. My feeling is that focusing on the method of delivery rather than the outcomes is a big mistake. I think that when we are trying to engage students we need to focus on what the session will be talking about rather than how it is being done. My thought is that the concept of a “career turning point” is a better place to start. I entitled the session “Career turning points: How researchers can think about their careers in new and different ways” and I think that had we publicised it under something like this we might have got a better response. I’d appreciate any thoughts on how to better package the ideas and sessions that use the storyboarding technique.

I posted up the slides that I used in the session yesterday. I thought it might be useful to provide a bit of commentary on each of the slides to help to explain what we did and why.

Slides 1-4 – Introductory slides setting out the background to the workshop

Slide 5 – An open question asking participants to come up with ideas about what researchers’ careers typically look like. The idea is to set the session in the context of researchers careers and to gauge some of their assumptions and knowledge about the researcher labour market.

Slides 6-7 – Presenting some information about the researcher labour market.

Slide 8 – Asking people to think about what factors impact on career decision making and career success. A brainstorm activity to get people thinking about how career works.

Slides 9 – 10 – Looking at the idea of turning points to make the argument that this is a key element of career management.

Slide 11 – Using some iCould/Vitae career stories depicting researchers careers. This serves two main purposes, firstly, it gives participants some time to engage with the career stories of researchers who have experienced some of the same things as them. Secondly it gives them some practice of identifying turning points and discussing the ways in which people navigated those turning points.

Slides 12 – 13 Introduce the storyboarding technique. (Notice that we’ve left it until relatively late). It feels that we need to set the context both interms of researchers careers and the idea of thinking about your career analytically before we hit them with the storyboarding technique. I feel that having done this it gives the technique some credibility and makes people feel that it is based on something other than just doing a nice drawing. 

Slide 14 – We gave out the storyboarding handout and asked participants to identify the turning point that they wanted to focus on. We specified that it needed to be something specific and relatively recent. They then took about 5-10 minutes to jot notes into the “Remembering” section of the storyboarding handout.

Slides 15 – 16 gave them some techniques to use in representing their story as a storyboard. With hindsight I would have cut slide 16 and replaced it with a sample completed storyboard. I didn’t notice until we were doing the session that they didn’t have any model to follow. I think that this would have helped participants to feel surer about what they are being asked to do. We then asked them to draw the “showing” bit of the storyboard handout. They did this well but it took a long time. I stopped it after about 15-20 minutes so that we had some time to talk about it. Participants would have benefitted from longer to develop their storyboard.

Slide 17 – We talked about their storyboards and then used our discussion to help them action plan in the “futuring” section. The discussion was very high quality and people really engaged. The storyboards were helpful in enabling us to ask probing questions about their narratives.

Slide 18 – fin


All in all this was a very positive experience. The way in which the session contextualised the idea of storyboarding and used the film material to stimulate discussion worked really well. The participants were excellent and really engaged with the process – obviously you can’t always guarentee this. In general I felt that the session confirmed my belief that storyboarding is a good technique and enabled us to have deeper conversations than is often the case in these kind of sessions.

However it is also worth recording some concerns/issues that need further thought.

  • The process was lengthy. We just about got it all done in 2.5 hours, but we did rush participants a bit towards the end. The technique is exploratory and opens up issues and therefore doesn’t really lend itself to being done very quickly. How often you are going to get access to participants for half a day to do something like this I’m not sure.
  • People have to focus on a turning point in the past as they aren’t able to identify one in the present. This means that participants may end up talking about something that they have already worked through to their own satisfaction. This doesn’t mean that there is no learning in it for them, but those who are currently working through a current or recent turning point may have a more active experience of storyboarding.
  • It is difficult to link the “remembering” and “showing” elements of the model to the “futuring” element. The way in which out participants remembered and showed did not lend itself to the fairly conventional action planning model of the futuring section (who are you going to talk to, where are you going to go, what are you going to do?). It may be that the way in which the reflection is transmuted into action needs to be rethought. I tried to do this by concieving the futuring section as “what are you going to do to make a turning point happen” and this sort of worked.
  • The way that we contexted it using the idea of turning points in researchers careers worked well, but it is not the only way that it could be contexted. Actually the participants that we were working with were in the process of transitioning into the academic environment (1st year PhD) and we could have refocused it on the idea of transition and acculturation. We could do with more materials and approaches to the use of storyboarding that can help us to think about contexting the technique. It seems clear to me that the technique won’t work cold and that appropriate contexting is essential.

So there you go – that is an initial br
ain dump on my storyboarding experience. Any thoughts/comments.




  1. I really like the title that you gave your session; I’ve found more and more with training sessions that participants want to be really clear from the outset what they might get from a session, and having it in the title is a winner in that respect.When you mention the process being lengthy, do you think that there are adaptations/modifications to the format that could be made to shorten it, or is that just a note of caution for people thinking about using it? How far into the session was it before you introduced storyboarding? (Slides 12-13)Is there an ideal cohort size for this kind of activity?

  2. I’m not sure where the savings in time could best be made. I think that it needs some context to make it useful. But, the core is the use of the storyboarding technique. Are you planning to give it a try?On cohort size – I think that you either run it as a facilitated small group session (up to 8-10) or do it with a decent sized group (up to 40), but then would be using peer feedback (which might also need a bit of input to help structure).

  3. I’ve been thinking about using it; I downloaded the materials from Bill Law’s site last year after the Vitae conference. I’ve only done things on careers a couple of times, but I really like the visual and reflective aspects of the technique.

  4. If you are interested in having a go with storyboarding before the end of the academic year we’d be really interested to talk to you more. We’re currently running a pilot of the approach and the more feedback that we can get on it the better.

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