How to write powerpoint slides that don’t suck part 1: The title matters

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What is the most important part of a slide?  You might answer, “it depends,” but there is a correct answer.  The title is the most important part of a slide.

It is the title that sets the tone for the slide.  It is the title that instructs the reader what they should be looking for.  And it is the title that keeps the author honest whether or not his slides flow in a storyline that supports his goals and whether the details support the main point.

What should a title sound like?

A title should tell the reader what they are supposed to get out of this slide.

What the heck does that mean?

Let’s pretend this article was being written as a slide.  Which of these titles do you think is best?

“The title is the most important part of a slide:  Use titles to make the point the rest of the slide supports”

“Slide writing primer: The Title”

“Slide Titles”

The answer, of course, is the first choice.  If you have not yet been exposed to quality slide writing, you may have picked something else.  Choice two is a reasonable choice for a deck that is a comprehensive guide to slide writing, but it is not optimal.  It does not set the expectation as to how important the title is.  A reader could skip over that slide it if they were not interested in working on titles.  If you were given an assignment to write a presentation on slide writing, 75% or more of you would use choice three.

What is wrong with using “Slide Titles” as my slide title?

There is nothing wrong with that title if you don’t care if your slides are misinterpreted or don’t care if you miss an opportunity to bring someone around to your point of view.

However, if you take pride in your work, and you want readers to get the correct message you should never use that title.

To explain, I am going to change the situation slightly.  Suppose you were providing a status update to a client or an executive at your firm.  What title would you use?  “Status Update,” is perfect, right?  Wrong.  That is a horrible title because you leave the takeaway up to the reader.  You never want to leave the takeaway up the reader!

Here is a hypothetical example to illustrate my point.  Your division sells two products, an entry level product A and a higher priced replacement, product B.  You recently implemented a marketing strategy designed to upsell customers to the more expensive product and it is working well.  Product B sales are up 5% and product A sales are down 3%, mostly because customers who would buy A are now buying the more expensive B.  Great news, right?

If you give this message to senior management with the title “Status Update” and lay out the facts, you risk them fixating on product A sales being down.  But if you present the information as “Upsell program successfully changing product A buyers into product B buyers,” there is no room for ambiguity.  The executive immediately knows the sales trends are intentional and can concentrate on the ramifications.

Yes, there really are senior executives who would fixate on the drop in product A sales in this situation if left to their own devices.

This example is simple, will it work for more complex messages?

This approach to titles is even more important for complex messages.  The more nuance or detail there is in the final message the more important it is for a title to direct the reader to it.  Nuanced or complicated messages can easily be misinterpreted or missed entirely.

Before I knew how to write slides I often got comments from executives along the lines of, “the bottom line is…” along with their summation of my message.  Sometimes they got my message right, and sometimes they got it wrong.  Regardless of whether or not they got it right, receiving that comment was a bad sign.  If they felt the need to sum up my slide, the message was not obvious enough.

There is of course more to making the message of a slide obvious, and we will get to those, but the title is the most important thing to get it right.

What do executives say when the message is obvious?

Some people think that the audience will say, “duh,” and get mad at you for wasting their time.  In reality, that is not the case.  You are so familiar with your job that what is obvious to you may need a explanation for your executives or clients.  Your message is probably not as obvious as you think.

When you do it correctly, your audience will ask something like, “ok, so what should we do with…?”  You will answer, “funny you should ask, that is my next slide,” and then move them right along your chain of logic.

That brings us to the next step in slide writing training, developing a storyline.  Stay tuned for our next installment about how to develop a storyline that flows well and keeps your audience engaged.

2 thoughts on “How to write powerpoint slides that don’t suck part 1: The title matters

  1. At first glance, I was thinking, powerpoint? Tittle? What can I possibly learn? However, knowing that you always put out quality content, I came over to read the article. I am so glad I did. I have always known that a good title is essential, yet I have never researched how to pick the right title. Your examples clearly show that a title can make or break a presentation.

    Thank you, looking forward to the next article.



    1. I am glad you read it as well, and I hope it makes a difference for you. I think you will like the upcoming articles, stay tuned until next week!

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