How to write a presentation title that gets people flocking to your session

by Olivia Mitchell

magazine stack

Get inspiration for your presentation title from magazines. Photo credit: bravenewtraveler

You might not give much thought to your presentation title for a conference presentation. The conference organizers will have asked you to provide a title and an abstract for the conference programme and you manage to slap something together just before the deadline.

But your presentation title can determine whether you have a smattering of people attending, or standing room only.

The good news is that it’s not that hard to craft a presentation title. There are a number of tried and tested formats which are easy to adapt to your topic. This is the way professional copywriters write headlines. They don’t start from scratch. They have a collection of previously used headlines (called a swipefile) and then they simply work out which type of headline will work best for their current topic. Next time you’re in the store, check out magazines like Cosmo. You’ll see the same alluring headlines time and time again.

I’ll show you how this can work by taking one topic and generating a number of possible presentation titles by applying the different formats.

The topic is teaching bioethics in secondary schools. I have a good friend who’s an expert on this topic and gives presentations at conferences around the world.

1. Promise benefits

Dale Carnegie’s famous book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” is still one of the best-selling communications books on Amazon. The title of the book is a big part of it’s success. That title works because it promises benefits. It’s not enough to say:

How to teach bioethics

That’s ho-hum. Adding benefits to the title makes it sing:

How to teach a bioethics class that makes students think

How to be an inspiring bioethics teacher

How to engage and inspire your students through teaching bioethics

“How to” is the most common way of starting a benefit title. To explore the “How to” format more deeply check out this post on writing headlines for blog posts. It’s applicable to writing presentation titles too How to write a Killer How To Article that gets Attention

2. Promise a story

We love stories. You probably already know that telling stories is a powerful presentation technique. But you can also use the power of the story in your presentation title. For example:

How a poor school turned delinquent teenagers into philosophers

How a burnt-out teacher reconnected with the love of teaching through bioethics

If you’re presenting a case-study, this format is ideal for your presentation title. Here’s the format “How A got to B”. Make “A” and “B” as far as part as possible by adding adjectives.

3. Put the number three at the front

Consider this title:

Critical concepts for teaching bioethics

Sounds kind of boring and academic, but what if you put a number in front of it:

Three critical concepts for teaching bioethics

Now your prospective audience member is thinking “I better know what those three critical concepts are”. Even if they’re an expert in teaching bioethics they’ll want to find out the three concepts a fellow expert considers critical.

Three is the ideal number of major points to cover in a presentation, and five at the outside. If you try and cover more you won’t be able to do justice to each point. It’s better to go deep, rather than wide. See my post When is it OK to break the rule of three-part structure.

4. Provoke curiosity

If you’re revealing new research in your presentation make the most of it. People want to hear what’s new. They come to conferences to be at the cutting-edge.

New classroom research reveals the bioethics teaching methodology that gets the best results

If you’re a teacher of bioethics how could you resist going to that session?

That title works because of the curiosity that it evokes. You can exploit the natural attraction power of curiosity even if you don’t have cutting-edge research to reveal. For example:

The #1 strategy for teaching bioethics in the classroom

5. Evoke concern

This type of presentation title makes people want to to come to your presentation to check that they’re not making big mistakes. It’s a powerful strategy. For example:

The common mistakes bioethics teachers make

The flaws in current bioethics teaching methodology

or take some ownership with this version:

The mistakes I’ve made teaching bioethics and how you can learn from them

Mix ‘n’ Match Presentation Titles

You can use elements from these different types of title and mix them up. For example, many titles can be improved by adding the number 3. For example:

The common mistakes bioethics teachers make

becomes

The three common mistakes bioethics teachers make

Add contrast to your titles

Adding contrast adds the element of surprise to your title. For example, I can improve this title:

How to teach a bioethics class that makes students think

by changing ‘students’ to ‘teenagers’:

How to teach a bioethics class that makes teenagers think

Putting the words “students” and “think” next to each other doesn’t generate any surprise. But put the word “think” next to “teenagers” does.

So simply by applying these formats I’ve generated eleven possible titles. You can do the same. Once you’ve generated some titles, choose the one that resonates best with you and then plan your presentation to fulfill the promise that you’re making to your audience in the title.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken Molay May 25, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Olivia, another technique is to imply privileged information: “Secrets of bioethics teaching” or “Bioethics teaching techniques of the pros”

Reply

Olivia Mitchell May 25, 2010 at 9:10 pm

Hi Ken

Thanks for adding that technique. Olivia

Reply

Jen May 26, 2010 at 2:09 am

Thanks for posting this Olivia. I definitely have “title challenge.” Seems like by the time I get to naming my presentations, my creativity is shot. Specifically I like the fact that you give examples! This really helped to clarify the topic.

Reply

Mike Slater May 26, 2010 at 6:37 am

Olivia
A very useful post. I always put a lot of effort into trying to pull together a good presentation, but thinking of a title that will catch the interest is always Ichallenging.

Reply

Dano Ybarra June 21, 2010 at 10:44 am

Olivia,
I really enjoyed this article and will read it each week for inspiration creating titles for my blogs. When I create presentations, blogs, and articles I use a working title until I am finished. It keeps me on track. Then I create my real title. I have read others that promote creating your title, then the content. Which do you prefer and why?

Reply

Karen June 21, 2010 at 10:50 am

Olivia,

Thank you for this information. I am definitely title challenged. My colleagues recently told me that they decided not to attend my presentation as it did have any relevance to their courses. I will be sure to utilize these suggestions next time.

Reply

Olivia Mitchell June 21, 2010 at 10:54 am

Hi Karen

Ouch! Of course if it’s correct that it wasn’t relevant then that’s fine. But if it’s because the title didn’t attract them and show the relevance then that’s disappointing. Good luck with your next title.

Olivia

Reply

Craig Hadden - Remote Possibilities January 3, 2012 at 11:55 am

Excellent ideas, Olivia, and well expressed! I’ve linked to this (and some of your other posts) from my blog.

Also came up with a simple 3-word model for involving the audience through the presentation title: Question, Action, Mention. (See http://remotepossibilities.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/answer-peoples-key-question-first-framework-part-1a/#involve_people)

Reply

Anyanwu Moses Chukwudi November 12, 2012 at 2:27 am

I’m happy to read this write up,
@ olivia you’re indeed an inspiring character.
I’m working on my magazine please I need your sopports
And contrIbutions. Please Olivia need your support…

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I have been writing blogs and articles for years and need ideas of how to create some new titles. This has been extremely educational and helpful for me to create better titles. Thanks

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