On slideshows…

November 29, 2011

I’m flattered MG Siegler would take the time to single out one of my slideshows for SAI as being interesting enough to read, but annoying when formatted as a slide show.

So. A few ideas to think about.

Bad slideshows are horrible, agreed. They’re forced, they’re boring, they feel like a cheap trick. Maybe this one was a stretch, although I thought that the discrete elements — Microsoft product x is like Google product y — made it kind of natural.

But when done right, they can be really fun. A couple recent ones I’m proud of are Steve Ballmer’s Nightmare and Microsoft Store vs. Apple Store.

The Ballmer one worked, I think, because each slide led naturally into the next one. There’s a small element of suspense at the end of each discrete step — wow, so what could happen next in this chain reaction to cause Microsoft to go out of business? (Sure, the story was helped by the crazy premise — Microsoft is a $70B-a-year company with operating margins around 30% and $60B in fucking CASH. And yet, I hear otherwise intelligent people in Silicon Valley say something along these lines every week or two.)

The Microsoft vs Apple Store one simply wouldn’t have worked any other way. Yeah, I could’ve written a 1,500 word article with photos interspersed but that would have been a different kind of story, and I think it would have been dead boring. The visual element and the competition in each category WAS the story.

Another fantastic slideshow is this story of a young homeless couple in New York put together by Robert Johnson. Does anybody really think he did that for the pageviews?

Funny, how come nobody ever objects to a photo essay in, say, the New Yorker? Or Vogue, which is more than 50% ads last time I looked.

A few more thoughts:

  • Authors and writers might object to doing slideshows. But my job is telling stories. There are many ways to tell stories. One sentence and a video clip. An audio interview. Slideshows. A 1,500 word news story. A 20,000 word New Yorker story. All can be good or bad.
  • In the news business, commerce and form have always been related. Why are newspaper stories a certain number of words long and laid out a certain way? Why are magazine articles split so you have to turn to the end to finish them? (Annoying as hell, in my opinion.) Why are TV news shows split into segments of two to five minutes? What is so sacred about any of these formats?
  • Random: there’s a great chapter near the end of “A Visit From The Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan in which the daughter of one of the main characters — a teenager in the not-too-distant future, say 2025 — keeps a diary in the form of, you guessed it, a slide show. Maybe Egan was commenting on the decline of traditional storytelling. Or maybe she was celebrating it. It sure seemed natural in the context of the book. (It’s a great read.)
  • Every single slideshow we do has a “View As One Page” link at the bottom. If you really hate clicking, just use that link.

I dunno, maybe this whole slideshow thing is just a fad and in five years we’ll be doing all our stories as micro posts of 140 characters and an image. Or video blogs. Mini musicals performed on streetcorners. Telepathic messages beamed into your brain.

Right now, though, it’s one way I tell stories and I think it’s pretty fun. I used to write meticulously researched 5,000 word reports with diagrams and charts and sidebars, so hey, I’ve done the big deep prose thing too. I think I got pretty good at it. I’m still learning this….