Man Bites Dog, and Other Great Headlines For Your Next Presentation

February 3, 2014

A great headline is arguably the most important part of a presentation. Headlines draw in your audience and preview what your deck is about.

The stats prove it: On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent 80 cents of your dollar.

So why are most of you still writing labels, not headlines?

Headlines vs. Labels

Let’s look at something really boring. Quarterly earnings reports. Here’s a slide from Google’s financial results with a label. It clearly tells me what the slide is about (which helps), but I can't tell what the point of the slide is. It doesn’t guide my thinking.

Now let's take a headline. A good headline will do the work for you. It will make the point you want to make in a crisp way. It’s both self-explanatory and catchy. Here’s that Google slide again, with a re-imagined headline.

Turning Labels Into Headlines

Look over your last deck, and check how many labels you have -- most people default to a label. The first warning sign of a label should be the number of words. If it isn’t a sentence, or at least doesn’t read like a sentence, you probably have a label. It will be short -- usually a couple of words -- and categorize the information on the slide. Some examples: 4th Quarter Highlights, Consolidated Quarterly Reviews, Traffic Earning Costs, Audience Breakdown.

Now look at that slide and ask yourself, "What do you want people to get from this slide? What's the exciting, interesting point?" That should be the headline for the slide. If you have the nasty habit of putting a "bottom line" or "take-away" in the body of your slide, your path to reform is clear -- just turn that into the headline. If you don’t, you probably have the headline buried in the body of your slide somewhere.

Here’s another example from the Google deck again, which has all labels:

In contrast, here’s  a slide from AT&T's earnings results, which had a descriptive headline:

All it took was a few more descriptive words to move from a label to a headline.

Headlines don't need to be a complete sentence, but shoot for sentence-like. Don’t worry if your headline is longer than one line on the page, unless it is your cover slide, in which case you want to make sure it's more succinct and can be read at a thumbnail-image size.

And remember, in the online realm, a headline has to work for both humans and algorithms; if it’s not effective, you’re not getting eyeballs. Look for a combination of self-explanatory (like a label) and catchy (to appeal to people). For instance, a slide on unemployment in the U.S. could be labeled, "Unemployment in U.S. since 2004," or headlined, "Unemployment in America: Are you better off?"

Don’t Just Take My Word For It

Michael Alley, professor of Engineering and presentation auteur at Penn State, has defined the assertion-evidence model. His research found that a compelling, crisp headline in sentence form, backed up by evidence (usually visual) in the main body of a slide, increases comprehension and recall. That’s the power of a good headline. It’s worth at least 80 cents.

READ MORE: Weekend Reading: Optimizing Your Speech and Slides

Gavin McMahon is a PowerPoint obsessive. He’s a founding partner at fassforward Consulting Group, and blogs about PowerPoint, Communication, Infographics and Message Discipline at You can tweet to him @powerfulpoint or find him Google+.