Using a slide-show for reflection

This article first appeared in Horizons magazine, Issue 55 (Autumn 2011)

When was the last time you managed a quiet, focused fifteen minutes of reflection and review with your group? Almost no speaking, just the occasional smile, laugh or tear. A mental journey through the physical one they have just been on.

Unless you are working with Trappist monks, the chances are that this is a rarity for you, as it is for most of us. However, there is one fool-proof way of making it happen.

A slide-show of pictures from a group's adventures is a beautiful way of rounding off a programme and with modern technology it is easier than it has ever been. If we embrace reflection as a key part of experiential learning, and believe that an image is worth a thousand words, we can help the participants relive the emotions of a programme and reinforce the learning that they bring.

Capturing Images

The key to a good slide-show is having lots of good, relevant images. The days of slide film are almost behind us and, if you want to use the images during the course, you are going to have to go digital. Digital cameras are cheap and ubiquitous and most participants will have one on their mobile phone.

Try to capture all the parts of the programme, remember to pause during activities to take photos and don't forget about meal times, whether round a table, fire or camp stove. Photograph places you visit, beautiful views, signs for venues you use, and get team photos up on mountains or down in caves. If you can show learning happening, clear teamwork or discussions going on, even better. You are aiming to tell the story of your adventure so the more parts of it you capture the better.

We normally set up a laptop in the corner of a room and every evening download the images of the day from everybody's cameras and phones. This is also a good time do some basic editing, weeding out blurry images and selecting the best of the duplicates Ten minutes each night can save an hour later in the course when you are under pressure to get your show ready!

Telling the Story

All stories have a structure - a beginning, a middle and an end; your story has one too and a few minutes think about what it is can convert your slide-show from 'what I did on my holidays' to a powerful narrative.

If you imagine your story as a Homeric epic or Hollywood blockbuster, the first thing you will need to do is to set the scene and introduce your characters. If you are working with an organisation, try to capture a copy of their logo, you can often get it from the internet but nicer is to photograph it during the week. Look out for it on minibuses, clothing, paperwork or have the group make a copy out of natural materials.

You can 'introduce' the group by showing a team photo, perhaps when they first arrived - clean, apprehensive and excited. Even nicer is to ensure that during the programme you capture a portrait shot of each group member taking part in activities and 'introduce' them one by one with a photograph they probably don't remember being taken. However, only do this if you have a face-shot of everybody, missing someone out suggests they weren't part of the story!

Once you have set the scene and introduced your players you can get on with telling the story. If you want your group to relive the journey they have been on it's probably best to do so chronologically. It will help them anchor the feelings they have watching the show with the events on the screen.

Try to balance the sections out, the fact it was easier to take photographs during the low ropes course and bushcraft than while kayaking shouldn't be obvious in your show. Consider also significance of the events in your photo, two or three landscape shots from the summit are usually more important than two or three shots of that pretty rock face you passed on the way up!

If there were key moments during the programme, try to include them, no matter how poor quality or boring the photographs you have. A typical 'from below' climbing shot of someone completing their first route may never make it onto a guidebook front cover, but it will be packed with emotion for the person in it.

Aim for a mix of pretty photos, key moments and story telling images. All three have a part to play in evoking feelings and helping the participants to reflect.

As with all good stories, yours must come to an end. If you have selected the right images, there is a real possibility you will have stirred up significant emotions and care should be taken not to just 'dump' the watchers back into the here and now.

One way to wind up your show include a group photograph, this time as a dirty, weather- beaten and accomplished team. Another is to return to the organisations logo, or a slide with the title of the programme, dates and names of participants, perhaps drawn in the sand or scratched on a piece of slate or wood. Finally you could emulate the great film-maker Charlie Chaplin and finish with a slide that simply says "The End"!

About 3-4 seconds per slide seems to be about the right timing, any more and it will drag, any less and the watchers won't have time to process the image before they are whisked on to the next one. If you are using music (see below) then you can frequently find a 'fit to music' button to help keep it sound and vision coordinated.

How many slides to use overall is a difficult question. Undoubtedly it is better to leave them wanting more than have them drifting off, but use as many as you need to tell the story. If each image is unique and significant, their attention won't be far away. On a short residential course I might expect to use 20-30 photos per day.

Resist the urge to tamper with your images too much. You are telling a true story, warts and all, not creating a fantasy master piece. Crop and straighten if you feel you need to but the more 'raw' your show is, the closer it will connect with its audience. As tempting as it may be to add captions, funny or otherwise, remember that you are helping the participants reflect on their story not telling your version of it. You wouldn't make a witty quip after everything that was brought up in a discussion review so there is no need to here.

Engaging the Ears as well as the Eyes

Playing music along side your slideshow achieves a number of effects. As well as discouraging too much discussion, the right piece can trigger memories and help elevate the journey from merely exciting to truly epic.

Methods of playing music during the slideshow vary, from the slick integration of slideshow software to the carefully timed pressing of play on the ancient tape recorder. Don't fret too much, once it's playing it will do its job. Do make it loud enough to have an impact, no-one wants to strain to hear it.

If there have been particular pieces of music that have been prevalent during the programme, grab a copy and use them. Perhaps every time you got in a minibus the same chart hit seemed to be playing, or perhaps the same CD has been looping round all week. One last time won't hurt anybody!

Alternatively choose some tracks that fit the story you are trying to tell. Non-vocal pieces work particularly well, after all, they were designed to tell a story. In particular, soundtracks from films can be particularly moving, the 'Lord of Rings' theme suits its own epic story well, and there is no harm in letting little of that rub off on your own.

There are a few tracks that seem appropriate to almost any self-development journey, it ís worth having a copy of them to hand, in case you need to improvise. Labi Siffre's "Something Inside So Strong" and the recent cover of "Don't Stop Believing" from the television series Glee have both been to known to reduce hardy outdoor instructors to quiet tears in the right circumstances!

Let It Play

Once you have set up your slideshow, give it a brief introduction and then let it play. There is no need to narrate it, the participants were there, they know what happened and it is more important that they visit their version of the events than hear yours.

If you have anything to say to the group, it's probably best to do it before you start. Once the slide show ends, they will probably need time to decompress and to parse the emotions they have just felt. It is quite common to have participants in tears, hopefully of happiness and achievement, and they may need a short while to compose themselves. Gradually they will start to talk to each other and comment on what they have just seen, which is after all what review is all about!

Post Script: Useful Music to Accompany your Slideshow

Some ideas for music to accompany your show:

Post Script: Distribution

With the advent of digital images, it is easy to distribute your slide-show to the participants to take home, either for themselves or to show family, colleagues and friends. There are a number of software tools that allow you to knit the whole thing together into a neat package. It is worth remembering that there are rights issues surrounding the distribution of images and of music and it is worth making yourself aware of these and making sure you have the permission of the photographers involved. In practice, on a small scale it doesn't seem to pose much of a problem. Also consider the issue of confidentiality, is everyone involved happy with the photos going out into the world? There is no easy answer but it is something worthy of thought.