by Scott Buros
Here’s an interesting exercise: Examine your clothing, the publications in your bookcase, the badge on the car outside your window and even the name stamped on the computer where you are reading this. What you have just witnessed is perhaps the most ruthless competition in the world, the competition for your attention.This is a contest that is won and lost in an instant; one of the greatest assets that any of us can posses in this battle is a great title. Unfortunately, few presenters put much effort into starting a presentation by creating a strong beginning. The first slide is usually a dull summary of the content (e.g. “Utility Scale Aggregation and Procurement Methods”) or a cliché phrase (e.g. “International Markets: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”). Rarely are we surprised by a creative presentation title; when that happens we seem to be more curious about a course, anticipate a better experience, and actually click on it in a list of hundreds of offerings.
How can you create catchy, imaginative titles for your presentations? Here are a few tricks we can learn from the best title writers: journalists, novelists, and event organizers.
Getting Attention with Titles through Sense and Experience
Mark Klimas’s photo for the Oct 10th 2008 issue of the New York Times,
“Smashing Pumpkins and more” immediately draws our attention.
Some of the most powerful titles are those that invite us to experience events through our five senses.Take for instance Food Fight, used recently by the New York Times to preview an in-depth story on America’s relationship with food. Coupled with the well-matched photograph shown below the article (above), the title plays on memories we’ve formed watching films such as “Animal House” or experienced ourselves, such as the childhood barbeque turned potato salad onslaught that I survived. These visions of what a food fight is, reside in our sensory memory buoyed by strong smells, in my case dill, tactile sensations, mayonnaise on my fingers, and sound, the clatter of silverware being poured onto a cafeteria floor. Match this with the unmistakable effects of adrenaline, which scientists also believe has a strong influence on memory, and you have a title that readers will not soon forget.
This is not to say that everything has to allude to all five senses and the hormonal effects of adrenaline. But ask yourself, would FDR’s “Fireside Chats” have seemed so intimate if we didn’t have that sense of smoke and heat that comes from being gathered around the fire? Or would Andre Dubus III’s novel "The House of Sand and Fog" seem as gloomy and complicated without these damp elements? Clearly the five senses can make us more focused on what we read and create anticipate for what follows.
Really Bad, in a Good Way
One of the best ways to write a provocative title is to juxtapose two very different elements, such as Gary Talese accomplished in his famous 1966 Esquire profile, “Frank Sinatra has a Cold.” This article was groundbreaking in many ways, particularly because Talese wrote the entire piece without speaking with Sinatra himself, but rather with the entourage that surrounded him. The result was a masterpiece that intimately described the entertainer from an angle previously unseen.But even more impressive: the essence of the article is expressed by its simple five word title.On one side, you have Frank Sinatra, perhaps the most glamorous celebrity of the day; a man people yearned to catch a glimpse of; then on the other side, you have the common cold, which is just that, a common, unpleasant thing that people want to avoid.This concept snags our attention as it is, but then when we consider it title it also becomes clear that Frank Sinatra, a celebrity and therefore someone who is often guarded from the public, will be shown at his most intimate, in a way that few of us want to be seen by even our significant others, ill and vulnerable.The title forces you to read on.
Another example that draws attention with its polar contrast appears in the schedule for the “2008 Improving University Teaching Conference” held in Glasgow, where one speaker conducted a lecture entitled “Demonstrating Science with a Stack of Jumbo Playing Cards.” Science, something that seems so concrete and technical, stands juxtaposed with something that seems simple and erratic such as oversized playing cards. Contrast grabs attention, and expresses something exciting, making it seem that the media we are about to consume is like nothing else we’ve ever seen before.
Write titles that adraw attention. If the other ones had eyes, they’d be looking at him.(Photo By Allan Cockerill)
Let Your Readers Feel Entitled
In many ways a title is nothing more than a sales pitch and just like in a sales pitch there are times when the straightforward approach is best. Sure we all love a snappy triple entendre we can repeat at the office, but the truth is when it comes to titles, the direct approach can be just as effective. Just have a peek at the magazine rack the next time you’re at the supermarket and check out the latest issue of Cosmopolitan or Men’s Health where editors slap straight forward titles like “How to Buy Your Perfect Pair of Jeans” or “How to Injury-Proof Your Workout.” There’s nothing that thrilling or creative about either of those two examples I just mentioned, and yet we struggle to look away.The reason is that they speak directly to us, and offer information that we feel we need. Notice how both use the word “your”. With that simple word, they earn the ability to be blunt because we know the content applies to us directly and there is no need to beat around the bush.This technique of offering direct advice to your audience or your viewers is easy to incorporate, for example, into programs that are offering “how to” information (e.g., “Five Steps to Customize Your Browser).
Beware: full disclosure plays a big role in this sort of headline. There must be an honest promise. If it announces “A flat stomach in three weeks”, it better live up to its claim.
What to Call Your Piece - the Value of Timeliness
One major change that has taken place in the media over the last 10 years is the movement towards a shorter and shorter news cycle; Because of this trend, the art of headline writing has also become more and more impacted by the issue of time. Just imagine if next week you suddenly read “Are Cell Phones the Wave of the Future?”, or if this November you read a piece called, “How to Pick Out the Ideal Summer Swimsuit” - or a sales white paper with the headline, “How to Keep Your Sales Team Motivated Through this Economic Boom". More than likely you’re not going to read any of these articles, because the information being offered in them doesn’t have any value for you in the present and like all media consumers we are living in the now.
When you write a heading, it needs to matter right this minute. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to transform even outdated ideas into information that seems like it should be part of a split screen on the next episode of “24”. For example “Are Cell Phone’s the Wave of the Future?” could instead be called, “Ten ways the Modern Cell Phone is Reinventing the Present". And “How to Pick out the Ideal Summer Swimsuit” could easily be changed into “Get Ready for a Winter Getaway With the Perfect Swimsuit”. Even the out-of-touch “How to Keep Your Sales Team Motivated Through this Economic Boom” can be rearranged to sound more pressing by saying “Keeping Your Sales Team’s Foot on the Gas Through Thick and Thin”. It all has to do with perspective, and although timely content is a must, certain pieces will remain eye catching and evergreen if you just label them in a way that puts your students on the clock.
Always be aware of how time can generate pressure and excitement.(From “Safety Last” 1923)
Search and Enjoy - Make Things Stand out on the Web
Larry Page, Co-founder of Google has been quoted as saying, “The ultimate search engine would basically understand everything in the world, and it would always give you the right thing. And we’re a long, long ways from that.” This fact is extremely important for anyone who hosts content on the Web, because it means that writing catchy titles is no longer the only requirement when composing content, but also that they must be phrased in a way so that they are attractive to search engines.The truth is, no matter how engaging a title may be, if it doesn’t get brought up in the first few pages of a search engine or Learning Management System by people looking for your information, it needs to be reworked.
A great example of how important searchability is can best be shown by typing the words “dog training for beginners” into the Google search bar and checking out the listings that come up.The first training company listed is called “Beginners Dog Training” and although this brand name may not be that eye snatching, it will likely generate more visitors than the more creatively named “Canine University” found on page ten. Use a keyword density tool to check your titles for their searchability and Google your presentations to see where they show up on likely searches that your desired audience would make.
The Greatest Headline in the History of Western Civilization - and Other Lies
Along with being engaging, clearly written and easy to find, good titles need to inspire credibility. After all, whether you’re getting someone to open an email, inviting them to an online presentation, or just asking them to proofread a document you’ve written for a client, you are requesting that your participant/viewer enter into a contract with you.The agreement formed in this contract is a simple one: the participant consumes some form of media the presenter has created and delivered, and gets something out of the piece. If this doesn’t happen, the participant feels cheated. Always remember: a title should be a clear and honest promise.
Often times this rule is ignored, particularly in marketing presentations and white papers.How often have you seen something like “The One Life Change You Need to Make to Get out of Debt Today”, or “10 Ways to Leave a Customer Begging For Your Business No Matter What You Sell”. Headlines like these, racked with hyperbole and empty promises, undercut any credibility or rapport you may have with your audience; those of us savvy enough to know you are lying won’t listen to what you have to say, and those of us who you do fool are going to leave your presentation thinking that no matter how helpful the information you gave us, wasn’t as great as you promised. With this in mind, anyone who is writing for any sort of business media or eLearning needs to make sure to bear in mind the old journalism saying, “If it lies, it dies.”
So What Should I Call It Now?
Having explored several aspects of starting a presentation, it’s easy to see why many authors spend almost as much time working out what to call their work as they do writing the piece’s initial draft and why companies spend millions of dollars coming up with brand names that won’t leave us absent minded in the supermarket checkout line. A title needs to be creative, memory jogging and thought provoking. Achieve that and your work will become a beacon that your participants will be willing to navigate by.
by Tom Brigham, Rexi Media
A friend recently described to me how his 12-year old son did his homework and I admit I was a little shocked by how much times have changed. He would be multitasking frantically on his computer with his iPod in his ears blaring hip hop, constantly shooting SMS text messages from his cell phone. Apparently the youngster actually got his work done, but I have no idea how. When I was a kid, we had TV, the stereo and the (one) family telephone, and we certainly didn’t talk on the phone with one iPod earpiece in the other ear while typing on our Facebook pages at the same time.
A 2005 survey of Americans age 8-18 by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that American children today were using electronic media a total of 6.5 hours a day, but more telling was the finding that they were packing more media exposure into that time due to “media multi-tasking”. In some ways, these hyper-kinetic kids may be more productive than we were, and they are certainly computer savvy (one friend’s children make elaborate PowerPoint slides to indicate what they want for Christmas). However, I feel that there will be some unanticipated side effects from growing up immersed in a hive of electronic activity.
A recent UCLA study indicated that the latest generation to graduate college is so absorbed in multi-tasking while they study that they have the shortest attention span of any generation in history. In fact, a new condition known as “attention deficit trait” (ADT) has been identified which is believed to be affecting all ages in the modern workforce. This condition, which is becoming increasingly common, makes employees feel perpetually distracted, impatient, disorganized and overwhelmed by their work.
For a variety of reasons, the last ten years have brought an increase in how productive individual employees are expected to be, and this has coincided neatly with the rise in adoption of mobile devices, text messaging, and IM usage (see Figure 1). It wasn’t that long ago that I did not even own a cell phone – now I am embarrassed to admit that I feel a bit naked if I leave the house without my Blackberry.
Figure 1: Blackberry Subscriber Account Base (in Thousands)
Source: RIM Annual Report 2008
“I realized that all of the years of research from the worlds of sociology, psychology, advertising, marketing, design and public speaking were simply being ignored when designing and delivering corporate presentations. Many corporate presenters have no training at all in creating visually compelling, persuasive, vocally engaging presentations; presenters usually follow the stale route of bulleted text and monotone voice. This is almost an invitation for the audience to check their Blackberrys. “
Carmen Taran, Rexi Media Founder
What does this mean for trainers and presenters? If you’re training corporate students face-to-face, via webinars, or in on-demand presentations, the question is, how do you deliver your material in a way that appeals to a busy, distracted, overwhelmed and often multitasking audience? What techniques can you use to capture and hold the attention span of a group of ADT-prone employees whose thumbs are itching for their mobile phones?
At Rexi Media, we have a bold approach to this problem. After sitting through hundreds of tedious online or face-to-face sessions, we developed an ardent desire to change the way business presentations are delivered. What follows are a few highlights from our system. These techniques show how to capture attention and “Rexify” your delivery (Rexify comes from our company name, Rexi, which means “to direct” or “to guide” in Latin).
1) Better Beginnings
In the first minute of your presentation, your audience will subconsciously decide whether you are offering something brilliant or if they will be enduring the same old format, starting with “I am so glad you’ve taken the time to be here today. I can’t wait to walk you through these 78 slides”.
To create a better beginning, consider starting a presentation with a provocative statement (“By this time next week you will want to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro”), a shocking statistic (“80% of all hedge fund managers take naps during business hours”), or a unique prop (“this is an actual machete used by General Douglas Macarthur”).
The appearance of monologue is an audience turn-off, while involving the audience right away is a great way to announce an atypical session. The likelihood of multitasking is greatly diminished when you immediately give people something to do. Whether you ask participants to answer a polling question (in an online session) or to stand up and speak about a topic (in a face-to-face session), the initial impression is of a two-way exchange, rather than a sleep-inducing monologue. Imagine the immediate engagement that occurs when the presenter starts with a thought-provoking question, asking for audience input: “Google employees are allowed to bring their dogs to work. Do you think this would be too distracting or would it increase productivity?”
2) Think in Pictures
Everyone seems to know that a picture is worth a thousand words, but for some reason, the art of displaying ideas graphically is often lost in modern training and presentations.
The failure to use graphics to emphasize a point and tell a story in a clear and appealing way is prevalent not only in most PowerPoint presentations, but also in content delivered via more modern tools such as blogs and wikis. Figure 2 shows the difference between a standard, drab wiki page without graphics and a lively, engaging one with graphics. Notice how the illustrated example on the right jumps out and encourages the reader to investigate.
Figure 2: Wiki Pages With and Without Graphics
Figure 3 shows two PowerPoint slides before and after being Rexified. Since standard PowerPoint templates create bullets by default, it is all too easy to fall into the pattern illustrated by the spiritless example on the left. The Rexified slide on the right shows how the use of professional graphics, arranged in a simple, clear sequence with a narrative undertone, naturally captivates the audience in a way that stale bullet points do not.
Figure 3: The Power of Using Clear, Professional Graphics as Part of a Narrative
Consider using visuals not only to help illustrate a concept or a process, but also to constantly invite the audience to focus on your presentation by igniting their thinking. In Figure 4, the visual prompts the audience to think and become engaged quickly. Overall, keep in mind that visuals increase the retention of your materials (the brain remembers more of what it sees and hears) and they also help you save time (the brain processes visual information faster than auditory information).
Figure 4: Strong Visuals Capture Attention and Decrease Multitasking
3) Use Words for Humans (not corporate clichés)
When presenters and trainers use expressions like unparalleled, customer-centric, going forward, win-win, and (gasp) thinking outside of the box, the eyes of their audience members tend to glaze over. Too often presenters revert to using a templatized language, devoid of meaning and sincerity. Students and participants appreciate simple, precise language, the kind you would use with your friends and family around the dinner table. Instead of standard clichés and canned sound bites, we encourage the use of clear, fresh and honest words, which help presenters to connect with audiences and keep participants from multitasking while attending a session.
We believe that the cross-functional teamwork we have implemented greatly enhances our capacity to deliver ground-breaking solutions in this space. At the end of the day, there is plenty of low hanging fruit if we continue to maximize customer satisfaction.
Working closely together makes us more creative and productive. We all know that our main goal is to satisfy customers.
4) Vocal Variation
Another reason why audience members tend to fade into multitasking mode is because presenters speak in a monotone voice without variation or adjustment. Can you imagine a symphony being played at exactly the same volume without any pauses or accents, devoid of crescendos and decrescendos, pianissimos and fortissimos? This would be a pretty dull performance, and the same goes for speaking and presenting.
We tend to be attracted by contrast. Watch how filmmakers use this technique; action sequences juxtaposed with quiet scenes or tense quiet moments followed by explosive sounds are standard practice for grabbing audiences’ attention in movies, and these can be used to make your presentations more captivating as well. Using dramatic pauses, varying the pace, or changing the volume of one’s voice for dramatic affect are all key elements of vocal variation. Some speaking coaches call this learning to “sing” when making a presentation, and this simply refers to the art of expressing emotion and meaning with vocal emphasis and tone.
“One of the things I noticed in my years of sales was that vocal variety was an essential component of how I presented to corporate clients. Modulating my voice at different times during my sales presentation was a key way to emphasize certain points and communicate my enthusiasm. We all know that voice training is important, but how many of us actually practice? Committed voice training pays off in the effectiveness of a presentation.”
Danielle Daly, Rexi Media Founder
One way to practice vocal variety is through recording exercises. Using a recording software and a microphone, you can “view” vocal inflections, pitch, and “thickness” of the voice. In Figure 6, notice how a recording program captures vocal variety visually. Which voice would entice you to pay attention and not tune out?
Figure 6: Vocal Variety Viewed Using Recording Software
The four principles described here spring from a variety of disciplines (design, sociology, psychology, and advertising to name a few), and are based on proven techniques for connecting with audiences and keeping them engaged and attentive. At Rexi Media, we feel that there is a major disparity between the sophisticated methods used by the advertising and entertainment industries to connect with audiences and the plain vanilla served up in most corporate presentations. Our goal is to help companies create presentations and training sessions that make full use of these modern techniques, and we believe this will enable you to capture the attention of the multitasking generation. Ideally, this will also leave your audiences motivated, enlivened, and filled with a warm sense of anticipation at the idea of hearing from you again.
Tom Brigham, Rexi Media