RGMP 11: Tell a good story with images and sound

(Updated Thursday, March 19, 10 a.m.)

I was going to title this “Produce a feature story with Soundslides, using an interview and natural sound,” but that seemed a tad too long. Besides, it doesn’t necessarily require the Soundslides application (although I am going to frame this in terms of a slideshow, rather than video).

Chuck Fadely of the Miami Herald was dead right in his earlier comment when he said:

The goal should be to learn to tell stories visually, with audio that complements the images, edited with a pace and rhythm appropriate for the piece. Dumping a folder of pictures over top of some bad audio does no one any good.

This is the 11th post in a series titled “Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency.” In the tenth post, I introduced you to Soundslides, an inexpensive, extremely easy-to-use program for creating audio slideshows on Windows or Mac computers. In this post I’m going to talk about how to ensure you have a story that’s worth telling in this manner — with photos and audio — and how to construct it, story-wise, to make it communicate effectively.

What do you intend to communicate?

This might be the most common mistake that journalists make: Often we give little or no thought to this question and its answer.

Much of the time, we go out and cover an event, and then our (text) story is simply what happened and who was there. In the time-honored tradition of humans telling stories to one another, this is at the low end of the scale — unless the event was, say, the Battle of Troy (which was rather more exciting than the average charity fund-raiser).

If you want to tell a story with photos and sound about an event, what do you want to communicate? In addition to what happened and who was there, you should be trying to convey a sense of the experience. If it was a party, we need to hear the music, the glasses clinking, the murmer of voices, the laughter. We need to see dancing, if there was dancing, and people having fun. Or people looking bored. It’s got to be more than a set of society-page candids that show people standing around, all shot from the same distance. (See an example, from a beauty pageant: Bellezas Hispanas.)

If the event was so mundane that your photos show only people just sitting and staring, or talking (for example, at a panel discussion), then I suggest you abandon the idea of doing a slideshow about that. It’s just too boring. You can write that story in a more interesting way and forgo the multimedia.

A typical type of feature story tells us about a person and something interesting (or unusual; same thing) that he or she does. Collecting old postage stamps: Not a lot of action or emotion there, but perhaps the stamps are quite various and cool-looking, and they would make good visual material for a slideshow for that reason. A more likely candidate story would be about a person who performs some kind of activity — builds custom motorcycles, creates stained-glass windows, works with animals, etc.

What do you want to communicate? The stamps really are interesting — if you look at them super-closely. The guy building the motorcycles does it because he loves to see his customers get exactly what they dreamed of. The stained-glass artist has a passion for light and color. The animal rescue worker talks to each dog and cat as if it were a person who could answer back.

You need to ensure that you do communicate the most interesting aspect, the thing that sets this story apart.

If you went out to do the custom motorcycle story thinking, “Motorcycles will make nice pictures,” that’s okay. But if all you got in the interview and photos was pretty motorcycles … well, you don’t have a story. And if you got the guy on your audio saying, “What really keeps me doing this is the way someone’s face lights up when he sits on his custom for the first time,” but you didn’t get any pictures of that moment — when the buyer’s face is aglow with happiness — then you don’t have a slideshow.

You can easily get dozens of pictures of the animal rescue worker romping with the cats and dogs, but that’s not enough. You need to walk with her, with your microphone, while she’s doing her everyday job. You need to become invisible with the mic and stay with her long enough so that she forgets about you and slips into her routine. That’s when she’ll start having her conversations with the animals. That’s when you’ll capture the audio that will communicate the real story.

Opening and closing

Most multimedia stories run about two minutes, maybe two and a half. Limiting yourself to that length imposes discipline. Not only do you need to know what you intend to communicate; you also need to ruthlessly cut away anything that does not advance the story. Keep it simple. Don’t try to do more than one thing in two minutes.

A few years ago, my friend Regina McCombs told me that once she knew what her open and her close were for a story, the rest was easy. Her approach was informed by 10 years of TV news experience, translated to the online audio slideshow. Since then I’ve seen many, many proofs that she was correct.

When I’m watching a slideshow that starts out strong and clear, I’m hooked immediately. If it wanders or fumbles, loses its way, I quit in the middle. But if it follows a straight track to the conclusion, I’ll stick with it.

To create this straight, clear path, you’ve got to have your ending firmly in mind. You have to know exactly what the closing is before you edit the rest of the material for the slideshow.

The ending can either wreck the story or take it to a sublime level. Sometimes the ending trickles out to nothing. Sometimes the story seems to be cut off too suddenly, or arbitrarily. A solid, satisfying ending has two parts. They can be called the climax and the resolution, and even though that sounds a bit overblown for a two-minute story. I think you’ll tell a better story if you think of the ending in those terms.

The climax is the destination, the place you’re taking the audience, in a straight line from the opening. It will come near the end of the story, but afterward, you also need to provide closure. Make it feel complete. That’s the resolution. It’s the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae.

One of my favorite examples is Guitar Lessons at the Central Area Senior Center. This is a very simple story about some elderly women who are taking guitar lessons. The opening is strong and clear — we hear a guitar playing and we see an old woman with a guitar case getting into her car. Then she says she’s always been interested in music, but she was too busy to learn to play an instrument.

At the climax of this story, one of the women says, “We’re not just sitting home watching TV,” and another says, “It’s the best life, after retirement.” We see one woman smiling broadly, playing her guitar in the class. After that, the resolution: We hear the guitar students sing the line “I’m back in the saddle again,” and then we hear a delighted laugh from one of the women. We see two of students getting into their car to go home. It’s gentle and happy, in keeping with the overall tone and mood of the story.

The middle carries us cleanly and simply from the open to the climax. We see the various students in the class. We hear them playing and singing together. They tell us why they are in the class. Their young teacher tells us why he teaches the class. We see their sheet music, and we see them pay their fees.

The middle expands the story, but it’s really quite inevitable if you have decided on both your opening and your closing.

The technical bits

Gathering the assets for a slideshow takes time. You have to hang around the scene long enough to shoot about 200 photos (or more). You need to shoot a lot of variety (distance, angle, and subject), including a heck of a lot more detail (extreme close-ups) than you ever would for print.

While the quantity of photos gathered tends toward excess, the quantity of audio should go in the opposite direction. I suggest that you consider the normal interview as a kind of dress rehearsal for the “real” interview — the one from which you will draw the audio content. Decide what you intend to communicate, start recording a fresh file, and re-ask the questions that will tell the story in the slideshow. Don’t ever tell the subject what to say or how to say it — but you can explain that you will now ask some questions a second time so that you can record for the slideshow.

If you record too much audio, you make a ton of extra work for yourself. When I wanted to make a slideshow about a group of newspaper reporters in a video training workshop, I wanted to interview six people (about one-third of the group). I knew the final slideshow would last about two minutes (in fact, it’s 2 min. 17 sec.). Divide 120 seconds by six interviews, and you realize you’ll use no more than 30 seconds from each interview. So I decided on two questions to ask each of my six subjects, and that made the audio really easy to edit. I gathered about 25 minutes of audio in six interviews.

Gather as much natural sound as possible. Make sure to get at least one minute of the “silent” room (it’s never actually silent) to use as needed while you are editing. Record any natural sound that relates directly to the story — including your interview subject talking apart from the interview (e.g. the motorcycle builder chatting with his customers).

When you sit down to edit, be patient. Accept that this is a repetitive process. You can start with either the audio or the photos, but you’re going to go through each set of assets more than once. Decide on the open and the close first. Choose the sound and the images for one, making sure they pair together well. Then choose the sound and images for the other. (Sometimes your close is more obvious to you than the open; sometimes it’s the other way around.)

A key element in building the middle of the story (connecting the open to the close) is choosing pictures with a good mix of various angles and distances. Photojournalists call this pacing. It doesn’t mean time (fast or slow) in the sense that a slideshow lasts two minutes, and some photos may be seen for four seconds, others for two, others for five, etc. Pacing means a kind of balance between tight, medium, and wide shots, as well as subject matter. Too many medium shots makes the pacing poor. Too many shots that are similar in composition — also poor. Any kind of redundancy cultivates boredom in the viewers, so it’s best to avoid it — scrupulously.

One of the best how-to articles ever written about producing audio slideshows is Colin Mulvany’s How to make your audio slideshows better.

Use of music

It’s easy to use music to cover up the lack of audio you should have gathered, but didn’t. It’s a lazy option, often used by people who don’t care enough to conduct interviews and do real reporting. In many cases, music in a slideshow plays on our emotions in a way I would say is distinctly un-journalistic. For that reason, I’d advise against using music, unless your story is about people playing music or dancing.

Use of narration

Narration can be wonderful, but only if it’s both well-written and well-voiced. Few things are more boring to hear than a reporter obviously reading from a page. If you can allow the subjects to tell their own story, do it.

Use of title cards

You can insert cinematic-style titles (and credits) into a Soundslides simply by making a new JPG in Photoshop. These can be used at any point in the slideshow, not just at the beginning and end. (For examples, see my slideshow about an author book-signing in Hanoi.) Make sure the JPGs are exactly the dimensions you selected for the images so that the text is not distorted.


While many viewers will not look at the captions in an audio sideshow, those who do will expect to find correct, factual information in the captions — not just a repeat of what they already saw in the photo (that’s a lazy writer’s caption). As in a newspaper, people in photos should be accurately identifed by first and last name, as well as some other identifying information, such as hometown or profession. Every person who is prominent in a photo should be fully identified in the caption.

Date and location

I am amazed by how many audio slideshows at newspaper Web sites have no information about the date or the location (town/city, state) of the events depicted. If they do include a date, it is often lacking the year. Come on, folks — this is not a birdcage liner! It’s the Internet! That slideshow is going to be online for a long time, so plug in some context, please.

Previous posts in this series:

20 Comments on “RGMP 11: Tell a good story with images and sound

  1. Pingback: More On Slideshows | Multiplatform Journalism

  2. Great post Mindy.

    I would make a slight alteration to the diagram of the story arc – if the other axis is impact – to add a small peak at the start of the arc that offers an element of summary or tease. In these days of streaming video and quick starts, that ‘hook’ as you rightly say is important.

    The adage best pictures/content first is one that was drilled in to me when making docs

  3. Thanks, Andy. I’m not sure how to draw the small peak you suggested — we don’t want to slide down after the open, do we? Up, up, up for a two-minute story, yes?

    I saw a diagram once for a feature-length documentary that showed something like three peaks. Each was higher than the one that preceded it. After each peak, there was a small drop.

  4. Mindy – what does the vertical axis on your chart represent?

    Not “impact” surely? That would encourage producers to make the early material blah.

  5. @Peter Ralph – I would call it “interestingness,” but that does make it seem like it starts off at “least interesting,” which should not be the case.

    And yet, it should not become LESS interesting after the open. Maybe “dramatic tension” would be more accurate.

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  7. OK, but does the story arc really apply to news stories? Even if they are scripted in advance isn’t the traditional exposition, conflict, climax, resolution a tight fit for news? Does it even apply to most web video?

  8. @Peter Ralph – I used to think that the story arc did not apply to journalistic stories. (Let’s rule out hard news — that’s more of a “facts up front” format.) But after trying to figure out why I returned to some 2-min. slideshows and videos again and again, and why others left me cold, I reconsidered.

    It’s not like a fiction plot, because it’s not fiction. You can’t have everything exactly as you’d like it. But you can construct the story in a way that builds to a satisfying ending. Not a big bang, like a Hollywood blockbuster. But satisfying, solid.

    It takes away the sense of randomness that I get from so many slideshows and videos.

    I think we only get that satisfaction when the reporter had a clear idea of what the story was. In many cases, it seems to me the reporter doesn’t know that. He or she just gathers some stuff together and plops it on the Web for mass consumption. And it’s not a story.

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