Headlines and Labels Powerful Point

Headlines vs. Labels: How to write compelling headlines for your presentation.

If I could change one thing about PowerPoint for the better, I would remove the “click to add title” and make it “click to add headline.” Maybe, just maybe, it might make people stop and think. Instead of plugging in what passes for a title on your next PowerPoint deck — 4th Quarter Highlights, Consolidated Quarterly Reviews, Traffic Earning Costs, there might be an actual, exciting, point-making, I get it, now I’m interested, aha, honest to goodness headline.

Most people forget that PowerPoint has the word point in it, and they are trying to make a point. In the news industry, a headline like, “Headless Body Found in Topless Bar” sold newspapers. In the world of blogging and SEO, a headline has to work for humans and algorithms and if it’s not effective, you’re not getting eyeballs. In the world of PowerPoint, it has to make the point. You’re looking for self-explanatory (like a label) and catchy (to appeal to people.) For instance, a slide on unemployment in the US could be labelled, Unemployment in US since 2004, or headlined Unemployment: Are you better off?

Most people default to a label.

Your first warning sign 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. You can tell — it will be short, usually a couple of words, and categorize the information on the slide. Labels are good for charts, bad for slides.

2012 4Q Earnings Google Slide 2

Here’s an example from a company that most look to as an example of how it’s done. Not in this case. It’s a slide from Google’s 2012 fourth quarter earnings call.  I’ve blurred out the content, so you can focus on the title. It’s a label. A label tells you what the slide is about, but it doesn’t tell you anything else. You don’t know the point of the slide, apart from the subject matter (here are the highlights from our fourth quarter). Good to know, but it shouldn’t be the title of your slide. Since everyone has highlights from their 4th quarter, it’s not distinctive.

What’s in a Headline?

A good headline will do the work for you. In a crisp way, it will make the point you want to make. It’s both self-explanatory and catchy.

p2. from Googles Earnings results, with a re-imagined headline.

How do you go from a label to a headline. A simple question, “What do you want people to get from this slide?” will give you an answer that leads to your headline. It doesn’t need to be a complete sentence, but shoot for sentence-like. Don’t worry if you have to wrap a couple of lines.

It’s difficult to make financial slides interesting, but here’s a re-imagined headline for the previous Google earnings slide.

Label-check

So here’s a handy tip when you’re working through your deck. Take a glance at your deck and count the number of labels vs. headlines. Step 2, rework the label to a headline. 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 it into a headline. If you don’t, you probably have the headline buried in the body of your slide somewhere, which is handy, as a) you don’t have to work too hard to find it, and b) you can take some of the clutter out of your slide.

Here’s some more from the Google deck again, which is all labels. In contrast, here’s a company I wouldn’t normally hold up as a benchmark, but for their earnings results, they’ve done a better job of using headlines.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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 doesn’t necessarily always work, and some famous headlines have been ignored — Bin Laden Poised to Attack US springs to mind — but a headline will at least work for you.

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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17 Comments

  1. Peter | February 16, 2013 at 1:50 am

    Now that you point this out Gavin, something that I should have spotted ages ago has become embarrassingly visible to me. Mea Culpa. I’ve got the occasional label!

    Putting headlines onto slides rather than labels sounds to me like another example of the way that tweeting and blogging can teach us about presenting. In tweeting and blogging we come to value and learn about Headlines. Now we need to apply that to presenting.

    Great blog post

    • Gavin | February 16, 2013 at 6:57 am

      Thanks Peter – it took me a while to figure it out to. But at least it now gives me a good habit when I review slides – look for the label!

  2. Anna Rydne | February 17, 2013 at 6:58 am

    Thank you for explaining this in such a great yet simple way. Now I know where to send “hopeless cases”. ;)

    • Gavin | February 17, 2013 at 7:46 am

      Anna – we specialize in hopeless cases ;-)

  3. Alan Gedye | February 26, 2013 at 7:58 am

    Hi Gavin

    Have you ever posted any recommendations relating to creating a business proposal, using PowerPoint? If so, please could you indicate where I’ find them. Alternatively, what link/s on your (brilliant) site would you advise I follow for some tips/ideas/considerations in creating a business proposal (using PowerPoint)?

    Regards

    Alan Gedye

    • Gavin | February 26, 2013 at 8:20 am

      Alan

      I haven’t. I can’t think of any of the top of my head. But I would say this. A business proposal has 2 main phases. The pitching phase, for which ppt is ideal. I do have a post in the works called pitching elevators, about how to correctly structure a pitch. I think a lot of people get it backwards.

      The first phase, though, is the documentation of the proposal. That’s important, since it gives you clarity and rigor around your thinking. I don’t think ppt is good for this. You end up building what Garr Reynolds calls a “slidument.” If you go to the Microsoft office site, they have a bunch of free word templates that could help.

      If you are working on a new business idea, a great resource is Alex Osterwalder’s book Business Model Generation.

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  14. Craig Hadden – Remote Possibilities | November 4, 2013 at 11:06 am

    Great tips, Gavin. (And I love the photo of the fabric label at the top of the post!)

    I wrote a piece along similar lines, but its focus was more on working out the headline, rather than about writing it on the slide.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on the potential risk that you (as the speaker) could become redundant because the headlines make the deck self-documenting. I know M62 have a provocative post where they say that’s a problem (along with a few other points).

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