The audio slide show is one of the new forms of news and information presentation that the web has made available to journalists. The slide show does not require the skill and time of video editing; rather it uses the important form of still pictures and marries it to sound to give a viewer/reader a different experience in getting the information.
The two basic elements of an audio slide show, of course, are
* sound, which starts with a script
The New York Times is a good source of audio slide shows, in case you are looking for examples. One that appeared recently (as this is being written) was with a story about the mysterious disappearance of bees from their beehives, and it can be found here.
In most cases, the best journalistic audio slide shows incorporate a variety of pictures about the topic at hand. That would include wide-angle or scene setting shots, medium range shots, and close-ups. The pictures depend on the subject matter and the focus of the slide show. What you are going for in an audio slide show is to give viewers a good sense of the visual aspects of the topic, and this requires a good deal of thought on the part of the journalist, beginning with the question, “What is this slide show about?”
Another question the journalist will ask about the pictures is, “Does this topic have a narrative or natural chronology that the pictures can show?” If the pictures follow an event from beginning to end, that could very well be the narrative that the slide show wants to follow. In that case, sequencing the pictures might be a fairly simply matter.
Many stories and topics do not have a natural sequence, however, and it is up to the journalist to decide on — or create — the logical sequence that the viewer can follow. In many ways, this is the same process that a journalist must go through in writing a story about a topic that has no chronological narrative.
In forming this sequence of photos, it might be helpful to think of the story as have a beginning, middle and end. The beginning introduces the topic and tells the view what the story is about. The middle develops the topic with details, illustrations and other information that informs the views. The end wraps of the story by telling the view the effects of what this all means or what this story may be pointing to. In many ways, the structure mirrors the broadcast writing structure of dramatic unity.
The pictures themselves need to be of the best quality — sharp, well-focused and with a range of values that make the pictures interesting, arresting and easy to view. They should be well-framed and cropped to emphasize the important parts and to eliminate the extraneous material.
The sound (and the script)
At the same time as the journalist deals with the pictures, the journalist also needs to deal with the sound, beginning with a script. While some audio slide shows are produced with a reporter simply talking into a microphone and using only notes, the best shows are those that are scripted and practiced. Reducing unplanned pauses, “uhs” and stuttering is a service to the listener, and the good journalist will take the time to perform that service.
Writing a script is the easiest and most efficient way to produce a high-quality audio slide show. Writers should take a broadcast approach to their scripts and remember that they are writing for the ear — they are writing words that will be read aloud rather than read silently. Therefore, they should try to write with the following conventions in mind:
- Use short words and short sentences.
- Avoid complexity and too many details.
- Strive for absolute clarity. Unlike with broadcast news, viewers of slide shows can re-play parts or the entire show, but the goal should be to not make them do that.
While an audio slide show can be of any length (theoretically), most should run from one to five minutes, although an optimum length seems to be between two and three minutes.
The commentary should match the pictures that are being shown. A slide show is confusing if the audio talks about something that is not being show or is seen later in the sequence. Some pictures in the sequence may need specific explanation, and the audio should be timed so that those pictures appear when they are being explained. All in all, the close the sound matches the pictures, the better and more satisfying the experience will be for the listener.
Two styles of audio seem to be emerging for audio slide shows. One is audio that is continuous with slides changing throughout the show, sometimes even in the middle of a sentence. While the audio matches the slides, there is no great attempt to refer to the pictures themselves.
A second style is more deliberate in matching the audio to the pictures. Slides do not change while the speaker is talking; rather they change during a pause that is part of the audio. It is clear to the listener in these shows that the commentary is about a particular picture.
Audio slide shows can include ambient sounds and voices other than the narrator. They can even include music. There is no end to how creative a journalist can be in putting together an audio slide show. Including such items takes another level of thinking on the part of the journalist and some audio editing skills and software.
A script should be written so that it has the words on left half or two-thirds of the page and the slide (a box with an X can be sufficient) on the right side with the time (in number of seconds) that the slide should be show. The time that it takes to read the script aloud and the total time for all of the slides to be shows should be the same.
Producing the show
Producing an audio slide show is a multi-step process that is made much easier if you have good pictures and a good script. Those come first. Then you can worry about how to get them put together.
There are three steps: Recording and editing the audio. Putting the pictures into some slide show software. Combining the audio with the slide show.
A number of good software packages exist that can help you with all three of the steps. One that is popular now is Soundslides, which costs about $40. Typing “audio slide show software” into a search engine such as Google will produce other software packages, some of which may be cheaper than Soundslides.
Some computers have slideshow software built in. With the Macintosh, it’s iPhoto, which has a very easy and simple slide show function. You can control the sequence, timing and transition quite simply. Once the slides are in the show, iPhoto can reach into iMusic and marry the show to a sound file. Then with the click of a keystroke, all of that can be made into a Quicktime movie.