Storymapping — a step by step guide

This week, Nature published my essay Visual maps bring research to life. In the column I argue that techniques from storytelling and visual mapping can be beneficial to get a grasp on your research project. In particular using what I call storymapping.

In brief, storymapping refers to actively using narrative techniques and visual aids to organize the content of a project in a way that enhances the scientific work. The technique allows a researcher to see the content of a research project as a visual map of results, thoughts and ideas, and continuously edit and update the map as the project develops.

Storymapping helps you organize your research project. Screenshot by Åsmund H. Eikenes

Since storymapping may seem abstract at first glance, I have prepared an instructive guide to help you get started. Here is a 10-step guide to storymapping:

0. But why?

Before we begin, we should clarify why you should use storymapping:

The aim is to help you (the researcher) to know what you are doing, how your research project is developing and where the project is headed.

Storymapping allows you to:

  • See how pieces of a research project may fit together.
  • See how the project takes shape over time.
  • Explore what may be alternate directions of the research project.
  • Prioritize where you need to invest extra time and effort to fill a gap in the story.
  • Make your project accessible for discussion and input from colleagues.

I have a background in cell biology (a PhD in developmental biology and cancer) — meaning I have worked with a lot of microscope images, genetic characterization and molecular details.

In the illustrations below I will use a hypothetical project, investigating the drug N42 and its effect on cell shape. Also, some images are screenshots from my own storymaps.

I would like to stress that storymapping is not at all restricted to biology, and may be used by researchers from any field! Storymapping may be applied by anyone interested in seeing his or her data in a new way.

Are you ready to storymap?

1. A canvas

First, find a suitable surface to work on:

Here are a few options, ranked from worst to most useful:

  • Microsoft Paint and PowerPoint — just stay away!
  • Sharpie on a whiteboard
  • A classic, green classroom chalkboard
  • Colorful post-ITs on the nearby wall/floor/table
  • A modern, wireless smartboard
  • Online presentation tools such as Prezi

I prefer Prezi since it allows me to work with and re-arrange the data on a large, canvas-like surface — and still be only a few steps away from a discussion-inducing presentation. The following guide will primarily use Prezi as a reference.

Pro tip: If you sign up using an email issued by an educational institution (Edu Enjoy), you’re allowed to keep presentations private while still enjoying Prezi for free!

The next step is to place your data on the canvas. This may be preliminary mock figure panels, graphs, diagrams, microscope images, lab results and working models. Place everything in front of you, including ideas, hypotheses and stick-figure cartoons.

2. Sorting into piles

Once all the content is in front of you, either on your desk or on the screen, start sorting the data into piles of experiments and results that may fit together. For example, control experiments that back up one observation can be grouped together into one or more piles, while other groups of complementary experiments fit in to other piles. The result may be 3 piles of a preliminary project idea, or as many as 30 piles, according to when in the project phase you start the storymap.

You are probably aware of gaps in the data piles, such as experiments you have yet to get started or collaborators that have promised complementing data. Write down these ideas and possible experiments and include them in the piles.

Piles of data. Illustration by Åsmund H. Eikenes.

The overview may at this point still look disorganized and confusing, but don’t worry. It may help to assign names to the piles –short and informative blurbs that can easily tell you what the content of each pile is. Here’s an example: “The drug N42 changes cell shape.” The piles and their titles will function as preliminary figures, entities that at a later stage can stand alone as sequential elements in the final manuscript.

3. Seeing stories

The following step involves organizing the piles into something that resembles a story. Don’t worry if you don’t know where the project is headed, the storymap will help you figure this out later. At this point, seeing a general outline and appreciating the volume of data produced is the primary value of storymapping.

Most of us think of stories as organized from left-to-right or top-to-bottom by default. I do it too. However, the storymap is your own workspace, and you are encouraged to think outside the box! You can detour from the norm and organize your data piles into a circle, as two separate and smaller stories or as a story that splits in different directions at a given point.

Stories do not need to follow conventions. Illustration by Åsmund H. Eikenes.

Pro tip: Group stuff together, and it’s easier to move.

This process helps you visualize how you imagine the data being told in a manuscript, focusing on a series of sequential questions triggering new questions.

4. New relationships

You should not consider yourself done once you have aligned the piles along a straight line. As an exercise, take each of the piles and ask yourself; what will the story look like if this is the first figure? Rearrange the remaining piles accordingly. Do you see any surprising twists that can inspire a novel idea or new direction for the work?

Seeing different versions of the story in your project. Illustration by Åsmund H. Eikenes.

Sometimes the most important insights or questions are not to be found in the piles themselves, but in the relations between the piles. Force yourself to connect the piles to each other, and ask yourself if and how they may relate to one another. Maybe one pile is the answer to questions appearing in another, maybe they contradict each other, or maybe there is a missing link between them. Seeing these connections puts you in a great position to try to answer the new and important questions experimentally, and build a stronger research project.

5. Take a step back

The storymap gives you a hands-on grasp on your work in progress. The overview is important to put the details into perspective, and the intimate understanding of the relation between the sections helps you define the best possible version of the project.

At this point, spend some time reflecting on the direction of the project.

Ask yourself the following two questions:

Q1: Does this story answer a major question in my field? (Is it important?)

Q2: Is this the best version of my project? (Is it solid?)

Do you need to re-arrange the piles, add some more, or put some of them away?

One advantage of using Prezi is that it allows people in different locations to look at the map at their own leisure, or you can do a videoconference and talk through it. Ask colleagues, supervisors and friends to take a look at the overview. Do they see things differently?

6. Ahead of the curve

Normally, publications in the life sciences share commonalities in their structure. In my own research field, the following four steps are often followed:

Observation — Characterization — Molecular Regulation — Generalization

This guides the reader along a scientific journey, starting from an exciting observation or a problem, and ending with a new and important molecular understanding that is relevant for a broad readership in biology.

This is beautiful in theory, but complicated and exhausting in practice.

In the life sciences, mechanistic insight has gained increased weight the last years, with a strong focus on uncovering molecular mechanisms. Large, solid papers are now required to show that a specific part of molecule A binds to and changes molecule X in a certain way, and the modified molecule X is then allowed to initiate a particular cascade of cellular events. Choose any of the 25 000 genes in the human genome and try pinpointing it’s exact role in a multicellular environment. Easier said than done.

Typical outline for papers in cell biology. Illustration by Åsmund H. Eikenes.

This is what brings the research forward, but it is also why research takes time.

Knowing this fact from scientific publishing at an early stage will help you save time when developing your project. Since you know that molecular mechanisms and generalization will strengthen your project, you can initiate efforts to answer these questions at an early stage. Perhaps you can shift the focus so that a search for a molecular mechanism becomes the focus of the work, and not an afterthought added to figure 7?

Using the storymap to pinpoint where your project is headed, you can initiate some of the long-term experiments earlier, knowing that if successful, the results will contribute to strengthening the manuscript.

7. Work, work, work

Take a closer look at the piles in the storymap and apply some critical thinking.

Are all the control experiments needed for each of the piles as solid as possible? If not, put them on the list of experiments to do/repeat. Write your to-do-list anchored in the storymap, knowing that the most critical experiments will help you decide which direction the project should take.

In planning the next months of work, the storymap helps you to prioritize and separate what is needed from what is on the side of the main story. Time saved.

Screenshot of a storymap. At this stage, the project was about half way. Screenshot by Åsmund H. Eikenes.

Then, go back to the lab and produce more data.

Revisit the storymap occasionally, and continue to edit, modify and build on the preliminary arguments.

8. Kill your darlings

An important aspect of storymapping is to continuously be critical to your own work. There are some pitfalls to always think about the results as “telling a story”, especially very early in the process, and we need to be aware of them.

Here are some critical questions to ask yourself while storymapping:

Q1: Which stories are you choosing not to tell? Which important results, observations or findings are you choosing not to follow up?

Q2: How are you choosing which direction the project should go?

Q3: Does the project follow the most biologically relevant findings, or are you simply following a recipe to get the paper out?

Discuss your thoughts with experienced colleagues and train your ability to be critical and objective when evaluating your own work.

9. Seeing figures

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) journals are still not accepting non-linear non-text-based publications, and manuscripts are required to follow a number of rules. At some point, you will need to transition from a storymap with multidirectional ideas to a linear structure. Some projects can easily be presented as 7 figures that fit nicely into the journal’s format, whereas others might be more difficult.

Using the office wall to edit and test viersions of the story. Image by Åsmund H. Eikenes.

Maybe the team of researchers has 15 figures that need to be prioritized as 4 main figures and numerous supplemental items. The storymap allows you to test different versions of such re-organizations, and you can see how the argument flows from each section to the next.

10. The joy of writing a manuscript

Manuscript writing also benefits from the storymap. Here’s how:

A manuscript backbone for the hypothetical project. Illustration by Åsmund H. Eikenes.

While working with the storymap you get intimate knowledge of the piles of data, how they may link to each other, and what question each section of the story answers. This knowledge is what you want to convey to the reader: a logical flow of intriguing questions answered by results from specific experimental efforts.

In my experience, starting the writing process by only writing the transitions between each figure builds a Q and A-like scaffold for the manuscript. This is the starting point for the manuscript, and what remains is to add meat to the bones. Hopefully, such a focus on a clear direction and flow of the story will shine through the text and contribute to the reader’s experience.

In summary, storymapping helps us as researchers to get an overview of the project, see different directions of the research, identify strengths and weaknesses, support collaborative efforts and critically evaluate the data available. Also, working with the storymap can contribute to writing a better manuscript and facilitate effective narration of your project.

Best of luck!