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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.