Presentations Need Strong Titles
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.