Why Your Presentations Need Better Slide Headlines

Presentation expert Nancy Duarte suggested a quick way to diagnose bad slides. To check your own work, step back and ask yourself, “will the audience get my point with just a quick glance?”

Nancy’s “glance test” likens PowerPoint slides to billboard ads. Unless you want to hold up traffic, you can’t stop your car to examine every detail of the ad looming over you. A billboard should catch your attention and tell its story in seconds. For her, your slides should get to the point just as quickly. An easy way to do that is to keep your designs simple.

Nancy offers a lot of great design tips to make sure your slides pass the glance test. But aside from manipulating visuals, there’s another way to ensure that your slides immediately get to the point. Just like a news article or a viral blog post, your slides need descriptive headlines.

The usual slide headlines

Instead of descriptive titles, most slides are headlined by a single word or a quick phrase. At first glance, the first thing an audience sees are words like “Objectives or “Goals and Accomplishments”. If you do the same thing for a blog postsor press release, do you think you’ll get as much readers?

These headlines can only share a small part about a particular slide. PowerPoint expert Gavin McMahon more accurately calls them “labels“. Instead of urging the audience to think, “I want to know more about this,” they see text that they’ve likely seen before from other presentations. By changing labels to descriptive headlines, you can convey a complete and interesting idea. You can inadvertently tell the audience to listen closely to what you have to say.

Writing better headlines

In a study published by the Society for Technical Communication, a group of researchers examined how effective descriptive slide headlines are. The researchers presented two different versions of the same slide deck to several sections of 200 students. The first version had slides headlined with the usual short phrases. The other one made use of short descriptive sentences. Even if the study is focused on education, the results show how important it is to write better slide headlines.

When asked to recall the main assertions of slides, the students in the sections taught with the sentence-headline slides had significantly higher recall… For the 15 questions in the study, the average score for the students viewing the sentence-headline slides was 79% correct, while the average for the students viewing the traditional slides was only 69% correct.

So if you want to make sure the audience remembers your message, you’ll need to start writing better headlines. Here are a few tips to help you out:

  • Highlight the main takeaway. Make sure the key takeaway is clear in your headline. Always ask yourself what you want the audience to remember from each slide you make.
  • Be specific. Try to be as specific as possible. While your headline doesn’t have to be long, it should accurately describe what’s tackled in your slide.
  • Feed their curiosity. Write headlines that say enough to urge the audience to ask, “what happens next?”


Featured Image: Lena Vasiljeva via Flickr

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