How to do smarter, proactive planning-and-realization of projects, reports and articles, from the outset
Almost everyone doing research makes a plan before getting started - because we all know that research is time consuming, often expensive and hard to predict. Nowadays too this is often accompanied by some simple project management stuff — usually a Gant chart with tasks sketched in. If it’s a one-person project this just parcels our blocks of weeks to topics. But in a group project the plan allocates both time blocks and people or sub-teams to different tasks. Critical deadlines for deliverables are included here.
These plans always include some unrealistically short time for ‘writing up’ after ‘doing the research’ is complete. But what that actually means in terms of how a report or article will be organized is often sketched out only in very formal or conventional terms. (You know, the kind of completely useless ‘structure’ that goes: Introduction, then Definitions, Literature Review, Methods, Data, Data Problems, Analysis, Conclusion). The key thing here is that you read the plan and are no wiser at all about what the report or article will actually say. In group or team projects there’s often a lot of rather abstract negotiation(sometimes fierce argument) about the plan and project schedule, plus the allocation of tasks. The amount of final text space to be given to each person’s aspect of the work is especially tussled over.
Then the researcher (or everyone in the team) gets to work … and the plan usually crumbles on first contact with research realities. What was envisaged proves more difficult or time-consuming, or yields only ‘obvious’ results, or things apparently dis-confirming the main initial hypotheses. Previous literature supposed to be there proves elusive or useless. Experiments misfire and have to be redesigned. Archives are hard to reach and take more time to understand than planned. Interviewees don’t respond to requests to talk, and survey forms are unreturned. Statistics or data prove much resistant to analysis than expected.
Meanwhile the plan is not revised, but instead just atrophies. At meetings in team projects the leaders struggle to keep some progress going and everyone busy and committed, but some team members get overloaded and others are under-occupied. Usually the plan is too fixed and high-level to be easily redone, except with ad hoc fixes in periodic meetings. In teams each member or sub-group often focuses down on what they’re doing, losing the bigger picture and trying to just deliver what they promised. Meetings just become hurdles to weather, not a pooling of minds or information. In individual projects the overall picture of the report or article or chapter gets fuzzed, with the researcher plugging on, now with much less of a plot. Through it all the project burns scarce time and perhaps money, but gets less defined until…
…the end of the year, or some other fixed deadline looms, or the client for paid projects demands an update prior to the final deliverables. Cue a mad rush to get ‘writing up’ done. The formal headings of six months or a year ago are dug out, and some harsh realities are faced with hand deletions of sections that now are not viable. Chunks of text that could have been written months ago (but weren’t) are finally committed to screen or paper. The researcher or the team now burns the midnight oil in a frenzy, rush-producing results and findings, hustling statistics and Stata outputs (correct to 7 decimal points) into giant, disorganized tables. Much that should be better done is not. Individual authors just don’t have the time to improve the writing. And in teams, members are mostly too exhausted or time-poor to comment on (let alone fight over) other folks’ weak sections — unless some control freak (willing to work all hours) seizes the moment to re-architect the text in a more coherent way, despite the arguments that this generates.
I hope this picture is familiar, not because I wish bad things for you, but because I don’t want my multiple experiences of my own and other people’s weak and fragile project planning to be too exceptional. And because storyboarding research can help.
What is storyboarding and why does it work?
‘ A film storyboard’, according to Wikipedia, ‘is essentially a large comic of the film or some section of the film produced beforehand to help film directors, cinematographers and television commercial advertising clients visualize the scenes and find potential problems before they occur. Besides this storyboards also help estimate the cost of the overall production and saves time. Often storyboards include arrows or instructions that indicate movement’.
If you’re planning a video, a TV commercial, a film, or even a theatre production, you know it will be a long or costly project. And it will inherently entail a concentrated creative effort, during which initial plans are likely to chop and change, a lot. So a storyboard is usefully because it is literally just a comprehensive set of rough sketches on paper. It takes us — scene by scene, or even shot by shot - through what this version of the plan (of multiple versions) says will happen. Often storyboards include key image ideas, scenery or landscape concepts, or set design ideas, as well as bits of dialogue for critical ‘turning points’ in the plot, or partial dialogue cores for scenes. These then get fleshed out, perhaps leading through a stage where there are dozens of plot index cards, as shown in the header photo for this article. (This shows Oscar-winning screen writer Dustin Lance Black, hard at work on a movie screenplay, being built up from many index cards. He brilliantly explains his practice here).
Storyboarding works because
(i) It helps envision, or picture in miniature, and long in advance, a finished product, allowing all those involved in a project to begin to mentally run, rerun and debug each scene or angle from their point of concern.
(ii) Storyboarding is a kind of low-cost prototyping, a way of making more concrete what will happen. It seeks to generate key reactions and ideas to a very expensive product before a mass of scarce resources (and money) are expended on building the vision at full scale.
(iii) Because concepts are fleshed out and made concrete in an accessible way, a storyboard can help generate resources and commitment from external source. In movies raising finance from investors, or in advertizing securing agreement from clients, are key stages before the full project can go ahead.
(iv) Looking ahead in this way can also help a lot in realistically costing what it will take to implement ideas in time and money terms.
(v) A storyboard helps to creatively develop difficult materials, in enterprises where fine details and the exact form of implementation of ideas are often key. In some contexts (like adverts or music videos) the storyboard may be the only ‘shooting script’ that exists before production. In longer films it often metamorphoses into a contingent screenplay, that is itself often revised.
(v) The storyboard (and later the screenplay) generate a detailed, common vision that can be shared early on by many different actors in complex production teams — writers, directors, actors, camera people, multiple designers and technicians. From an early stage a storyboards gets everyone on the same page, in a ‘blow by blow’ way that is easily updated and reformulated. So long as it expands and adapts, it can also help keep them there as the project constantly evolves.
Why storyboarding also helps in doing research
Completing a research project, or doing a PhD, may seem a long way away from creative film- or video-making? So why should a method from such a remote line of activity be useful to scholars, scientists and academics?
In fact prototyping research is just as valuable in research contexts, as it is in a wide range of business and science contexts. ‘Prototyping’ is building any kind of cheap and easy-to-make simulacrum of a final product at a very early stage in its production, especially the stage of deciding what to try to produce. Prototyping can extend to building something a bit fancier, a ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP) in start-up business-speak, something that can do some of the key functions of the intended final product. Prototyping saves time and money being spent on things that won’t work; or that won’t be acceptable in the form envisaged; or that have flaw or problems that only become manifest when we try to make them even a bit more concrete. Prototypes often fail, but mostly in a particular kind of way, one where ideas are ‘pivoted’ — significantly modified or re-orientated in what the product is trying to do, rather than abandoned altogether.
Scientific and academic researchers often neglect to create prototypes. The ethos of ‘research’ tends to assume that we don’t know what the answers are at the start, and so should avoid preconceptions. (In some obscure way) there is often a feeling that it would be biasing to try and look forward to possible answers or outcomes from research before it gets done. The temptation then is to get your head down, get on with assembling materials to ‘test’ the research ‘hypotheses’ and see what happens — not ‘waste time speculating’ about what the ‘findings’ may turn out to be.
This “Don’t look ahead” stance is perhaps especially common among new researchers (PhDers especially, because they have a fixed task to complete in a fixed three or four years). But it also occurs among experienced researchers working alone, who are perhaps least likely to articulate in advance what they hope to find. One reason why academics who co-author with other people have more citations may well be that having to talk about the research and allocate tasks produces more looking ahead and prototyping. Not doing prototypes, and just getting stuck into a research grind, can also be a syndrome in teams with a very well-known or very protracted timetable to complete a research grant or a consultancy brief for a client.
Visualizing your final product is also invaluable in research contexts, and again storyboarding directly helps here. The benefits for scientists and academics include:
- Triggering a cumulation of ideas early enough to help shape the research process, rather than these being just unanswered questions left dangling in the ‘writing up’. One paragraph tends to suggest another, perhaps a possible counter-argument, and that in turn may suggest a rebuttal argument. None of this is obvious before the first paragraph gets written. Similarly, looking hard at a completed chart or table almost always reveals patterns (or possible interpretations) highlighting a need for another chart or table.
- Varying the scale of your focus — standing back from what you are doing, and re-envisioning it, are both easier if you can handle your materials in a compressed or synoptic form, seeing it at varying levels of focus and detail — not just nose up against the nitty-gritty of text or results, which is how we mostly tend to write.
- Facing up to inconsistencies. We all have a strong natural capability to maintain contradictory ideas or arguments in our private thinking, or even in oral expositions and conversations. Writing out arguments, or otherwise visualizing outputs or deliverables in concrete ways, helps early on to spot and counteract maintaining inconsistent commitments and arguments. Committing ideas to screen or to paper forces you to face up to weaknesses, refine arguments to avoid problems, or fashion counter-responses or potential solutions for things that seem to clash.
- Avoiding procrastination by encouraging researchers to complete known requirements as soon as they feasibly can. If you can foresee that it will take two paragraphs to explain Concept A; or a sub-section must explain Method X in y number of paragraphs; or that a data table will be needed on aspect G — well, why not get that done now, instead of in a mad rush at the end, or up against a deadline?
- Focusing on a research narrative, early on. Although a storyboard must includes critical, substantive details, it also focuses on getting across overall messages in an accessible way. For a research project, article or PhD chapter a storyboard directs your attention relentlessly to the value-added of the research, the key findings and conclusions, the ‘bottom line’ argument.
- Filling the otherwise large gap between initial plans and producing a first draft of the report, article or chapter. Storyboarding is about envisioning research. It asks: ‘If everything went as well as it could (given initial expectations), what would I find out or end up arguing?’ Or: ‘What if things went “badly”- in the sense of diverging a lot from initial expectations? or showing that I do not really understand what was going on? or that things are just more complex than I thought? What then would the argument be?’ ‘Are there any intermediate outputs, findings or results that I can bank for sure? Or anything that can offer me some “insurance” benefit, something to “lay off” against the largest risks of things going awry?’
How storyboarding tackles the mid-stages of text production
Between the plan and the first draft falls the storyboard. Plans are gnomic and often vague, no more than a set of skeletal stages to be filled in only later. A storyboard by contrast focuses on fulfillment, on anticipating and ‘getting on the board’ now all that can already be anticipated. It follows the (Theodore) Roosevelt doctrine of ‘Do what you can, where you are with what you have’. A plan is what you promise when you’re applying for a grant or bidding for a research contract. The storyboard is what you build as soon as you know that you have the grant award or that the contract is in the bag, and the precise (often reduced) resources that entails.
A plan is also a static thing, mechanical, inorganic and hence tending to go out of date. Sometimes teams believe that simply articulating the plan in great detail, defining a complex architecture - with formal heading pyramided using organizer software, especially with multiply numbered sections (like 2.1.1.a) — will be enough to keep a plan relevant. But such plans just fail sooner and in multiple detailed ways. Click on any element in a plan and there is normally nothing behind it. By contrast a storyboard is organic and dynamic. As soon as a component can be sketched in, it is included. And as and when the sketch can be filled out, then an image or summary of the completed component sits in its place in the evolving overall structure. Click on any element in a storyboard and there will be something lying behind it, depending on the stage of development of that component of the report or article.
There are two key levels of storyboarding — early and full. An early research storyboard is the equivalent of the initial cartoon version of a TV advert or video. It is very short, but still narrative- or sequence-orientated; still aiming to envision the finished research project in concrete, substantive message terms. Gradually it should fill out and transform towards the second stage.
A full research storyboard expands to hold an image or some mini version of all the components of the final text. What this especially means is that the storyboard shows
- all of the headings and sub-headings that will structure the analysis, given in full;
- at least quick verbal sketches of every main text section
- or perhaps later on, summaries of every main paragraph or groups of paragraphs;
- all long quotations (maybe as images for now); and
- versions of every Figure, chart, table or case study boxes planned. At the beginning these might just be made up sketch graphs instead of charts, or simple pictures of a planned diagram, or a set of empty boxes that is the same size as a planned table. With time these components get fleshed-out (e.g. using interim data in tables, or just quickly drawn charts). Late on they will be clickable images of the now finished exhibits.
All these elements need to be organized into the same sequence that they will be in in the finished text. And they must be easily moveable, so that authors can experiment and see what would happen if the sequence was rearranged, or if an element or two were just left out or marginalized to an Annex.
Add these two stages into normal academic and scientific procedures and you get a six stage, active planning process that does not have the major implementation gaps of conventional approaches:
Stage 1 Research Plan. This includes the tendering phase in a consultancy research project, or the writing and submission stage in a research grant application.
Stage 2 Early storyboard. With the feasible timelines and available resources now well-defined, how exactly can the promises of the plan be delivered? What substantively will be done and what messages given in each part of the main text deliverable - the research report, or an article or chapter? What is not yet known, must be anticipated or guessed at or visualized as far as feasible. In cases of uncertainty consider possible scenarios.
Stage 3: Full storyboard. This is a long-lasting phase, operating throughout the main research process. The structure is actively reviewed in the light of interim findings and results so far. Any components that can be realized immediately are put in place in miniature, perhaps as clickable images (so that the storyboard remains easily readable), but in advanced, even final form so that details can be easily reviewed.
Stage 4: Rapid first draft. This is a joined up write-up of the expanded storyboard, done quickly in ‘blitzkrieg’ (go around any obstacles) mode. The aim is to get the core arguments down, without worrying too much about their coherence, let alone missing references or tables and charts that are not there yet. Include the right amount of space for any missing component, and its indicative storyboard image, but then go round it in developing the overall argument. Generally this version of the text will be kept private, because it still has necessary components missing and gaps being filled in. But it can be shown to supervisors (with PhDs or dissertations), and in consultancy it might be shared with clients too (following a ‘no surprises’ policy). Getting such core feedback as early as possible makes a really rapid first draft useful, because you still have time to react, to pivot the argument a bit, and to do infill research on areas where gaps are spotted.
Stage 5: Full text draft. Here all the gaps are gone and readers get a view of the report or article without annoying glitches and omissions. All the ‘i’s are dotted, the ‘t’s are crossed, the text references and bibliography match, and all the exhibits and arguments are present in final or very-near-final form. Above all this is the moment when the researcher or the research team finally gets to see the report or article in full and as a whole. This text can be sent for wider commenting and reactions. And the authors can stand back from the text, and try to get enough critical distance to spot flaws and weak points — never easy when you are close to a just-written text. Hopefully, with storyboarding, you can reach this stage a lot earlier and less stressfully.
Stage 6: Edit and revise to get a final text. Most writing is improved by making a 10 per cent cut. And both ‘paragraph re-planning’ and less drastic forms of editing (like the ‘build, blur, corrode’ test) can add a lot of value — especially if they are not being done in a rush, and most key issues have been solved already.
Storyboarding on PC or paper
How you do storyboarding, what system or mechanism you use, could vary a good deal. In general, story-boarding should be
- visual, letting you overview argument structures and sequences quickly
- easy to add new components to
- flexible, so you can move stuff around and try out different sequences
- expandable, so that you can add in paragraphs, charts, tables, text boxes, photos, and whatever else you need
- operating at two levels, one the overview mode with miniaturized elements that are still viewable; and the other the full slide mode that lets you click through to inspect any element in detail.
- ideally the system should not entail any extra entry of headings, text or exhibits. You should be able to easily copy across what you need from the system you use for drafting full text.
Because I do most of my writing on PC (bar the earliest ideas-planning stage and the final text edit) the system I use a lot is Powerpoint. I also recommend this to others because it is so widely available. Whatever its drawbacks as a presentation system, the slide sorter view in Powerpoint is just great for storyboarding. Every component— headings, text paragraphs, charts, tables — goes onto a slide of its own. It’s often best to copy stuff onto slides in picture formats that can be easily re-sized - certainly always put in images of charts, tables and diagrams this way. You can control the size of the slide miniatures in the slide sort mode, balancing the number of components in view at once, against how much of that component is readable. Moving things around is easy to do and very visual in the slide sorter , and it’s easy to keep an eye on the narrative thrust. As you go from a slim, early storyboard to a fuller version it may help to print out the slide sort view, and to spread out large printouts on a big dining table or pinboard to see the picture as a whole.
For research teams, using Powerpoint also makes ‘version control’ easier — because almost everyone already has the software, or a close Apple or Google substitute. And storyboarding on PC means that files are easily shareable via Dropbox or Google Drive. Everyone making changes or additions needs to initial and renumber the title so as to save a uniquely named version. For team meetings book a committee room with a big TV display or a PC projector. Then the whole team can gather round each screen, perhaps using the giant Post It notes (the kind that stick on any nearby wall) to scribble down changes or new ideas that can also be kept visible to everyone.
Of course, re-purposing Powerpoint in this way has some limitations, chiefly the relentless linearity of its approach. This is the feature that other presentation systems (like Prezzie) make such a big thing of avoiding. Yet remember that in the end most reports, articles and chapters will have to be read and reviewed linearly. So Powerpoint’s linear approach may actually be better for this than Prezzie’s recursive meanderings. There are also specialist PC programs dedicated to the idea-generating, ideas organizing and storyboarding task, and some seem to be well liked by their users. For instance, the simplified, author-orientated wordprocessor Scrivenor has a ‘corkboard’ mode that tries to help you through the planning-to-drafting stage by replicating many features of a physical corkboard. Perhaps anyone better informed than me could email me with suggestions and reviews of alternative systems.
The big alternative to storyboarding on a PC is using paper and physical systems. You need corkboards (like TV detectives use) or magnetic boards on the walls here; or a big table to spread out and rearrange components on. And you can write ideas out in different ways. Post-It notes now come in different sizes and shapes, and some are arrowed to help convey direction easily. Or you can just pin sheets of paper up or use magnetic markers to hold them in place on whiteboards. The main alternative is to arrange index cards. This approach is perhaps the most expandable version, especially if you have many repeating or similar elements, and a standard format for covering key aspects.
Standing up to look at elements on walls or tables, and physically move them around, is probably good for your health. (It combats what Neal Stephenson calls the ‘arsebestos’ threat that plagues deskbound writers, academics and scientists). It may also help create the distance from your ideas that you need to think through potential criticisms or alternative approaches. Standing up in teams might also help energize thinking.
Who should use storyboarding most of all?
Anyone handling long-term, expensive or complex research projects can gain a lot from using a storyboarding approach. Especially if you’ve experienced past problems of ‘writing up’ getting too end-loaded, too rushed and compressed up close-to-deadlines, why not give this approach a try? Everyone will need to evolve their own practice, that fits the kinds of writing and research they do, the types of materials they handle, and the things that are already going well or poorly.
Three types of researchers can benefit disproportionately from adopting the two-stage (early and full) storyboarding approach set out here:
- Large research teams. In academic life that’s any three or more people working on the same project, but it could mean teams of ten to twenty at the upper limit. Just as with feature films, a live storyboard that is never allowed to go out of date, greatly helps keep everyone on the same page. Its presence always shortens meetings, since team members can review progress in other sections for themselves - and thus ask better questions and sustain more interactive discussions, rather than listening to a whole set of ‘briefings’ for most of meetings. A storyboard also helps pool ideas, letting someone working on topic A see possible synergies or connections with what colleagues are doing or finding in another topic area G. A storyboard also helps head off the ‘hiding’ of non-working results, or people ‘shirking’ in an easily researchable areas while colleagues facing harder going feel more and more stressed.
- PhDers and other students doing graduate dissertations can also get more out of storyboarding. It gets them more easily into the developmental rhythms needed for sustained academic work. Storyboarding creates more materials to share with supervisors. And it helps overcome the naive (‘first do the research, then just “write up” in three months’) attitude that PhDers often have. By forcing people to write up more as they go along, storyboarding builds greater realism about the writing and creative process. And it gets people practicing writing (or finishing tables and charts) much earlier on. It can also link easily to the regular annual reporting of progress that PhDers and dissertation writers are normally required to do. It gives supervisors both a continuously up-to-date overview of the dissertation macro-structure, and a constantly updating context within which to set the chunks of work being submitted to show annual progress. (It is otherwise hard work for busy supervisors to keep up with your doctorate as it evolves).
- Graduate students (or advanced undergraduate students at some universities) doing group projects can particularly gain from the approach. Compulsory projects are increasingly common requirement in business and public policy schools, especially in elite universities and post-experience courses like MBAs and MPAs, but also at M.Sc level. Here group working over long time periods (e.g. 5 months for the MPA’s ‘capstone’ project at LSE) forms a core element of the degree. If you are supervising any similar groups, or taking part in one, storyboarding helps a lot in keeping efforts directed to a common goal. Such student groups don’t have any formal hierarchic leadership. Hence they are vulnerable to twin threats of some degree of free-riding by some members, and over-committment/over-dominance by others. At the same time these projects are normally being completed for real-life clients, for whom a storyboard is a useful way of being updated. Initially the student group should evolve a very rudimentary storyboard to take forward the TOR (Terms of Reference) document with the client in an initial meeting. In the middle of the project a full storyboard using interim results and conclusions can be a key document for a productive ‘course correction’ meeting. It lets one or two client personnel react to emerging findings and lines of argument, and give feedback on whether or not it meets their needs. This usually firms up how the final drafting takes place, and suggests ways of proceeding to the final presentation and report to a full client audience.
All aspects of planning and developing journal articles, books, and book chapters are discussed in more depth in my book with Jane Tinkler, Maximizing the Impacts of Academic Research: How to grow the influence, practical application and public knowledge of science and scholarship (originally Macmillan, 2021, now Bloomsbury Press), Chapter 3–5.
You can also follow up related writing ideas in more detail in my book: Patrick Dunleavy, ‘Authoring a PhD’ (originally Palgrave, 2003, now Bloomsbury Press) which covers becoming a better author, stylist and self-editor.
And my @Write4Research Twitter feed pulls together a wide range of the latest advice on research writing and impacts.