Use Headlines — How to get the point of your presentation across.

December 15, 2020
5 min read
“Headline writing is an art form.”
— Jennifer Lee

If I could change one thing about PowerPoint, I would remove the “click to add title” feature 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 Finance Review, Business Strategy — 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. If it’s not effective, you’re not getting eyeballs. In the world of PowerPoint, it has to make a point. You’re looking for self-explanatory (like a label) and catchy (to appeal to people). For instance, a slide on your remote learning strategy could be labeled “Remote Learning Strategy.” Or it could be a headline: “In the future, 70% of our learning will be delivered remotely.” The label tells you what it’s about. The headline tells you what you need to know.

Most people default to a label.

Look for labels. Your first warning sign should be the number of words. Check your title. If it isn’t a sentence or doesn’t read like a sentence, you probably have a label. Your label will be short, usually a couple of words, and categorize the information on the slide. Labels are ok for charts, bad for slides.

Recent Zoom investor slide (content blurred) p.13.

Take this Zoom investor slide. It’s clearly a label. “Q2 FY21 Expenses and Margins.” I know what I am looking at, but I don’t know what to think. The slide is asking me, the audience, to spend mental cycles figuring that out. Are they good? Are they bad? Did Zoom have a good Q2 or a bad Q2?¹

Headlines are better.

Here’s an example from Peloton. The home workout darling does a great job with a headline, stating clearly that, “Workout Growth Continues to Outpace Subscription Growth.” Even with blurred content, you know what evidence you are looking for on the slide, as the headline tells you so.

Recent Peloton investor slide (content blurred) p.8.

An example from later in the deck has Peloton reverting to a label. The slide itself is a fantastic example of borrowed credibility, with Peloton comparing itself to other industry disruptors like Amazon, Apple, and Netflix. But the title itself is a label. “Global Digital Disruption.” It situates the audience but doesn’t tell them what to think about the slide.

Recent Peloton investor slide (content blurred) p.12.

Here’s a reimagined title for that same slide.

Recent Peloton investor slide (content blurred), with a re-imagined headline. p.12.

With only a few extra words, the point of the slide comes across. Stating clearly that “Peloton is Digitally Disrupting the Global Fitness Market.”

Turning a label into a headline is a subtle but important change. If you look at the decks you produce now; I’ll bet they are littered with labels. So how do you turn those labels into headlines?

A good headline will do the work for you. It will make your point crisply. It’s both self-explanatory and catchy. How do you go from a label to a headline? Answering a simple question, “What do you want people to get from this slide?” will give you an answer that leads to your headline.

What kind of Headline?

Your headline will either be an assertion or a question. For example:

Storytelling in business.
New product launches.

Headlines (assertion):
Storytelling drives business results.
New product launches drive our revenue growth.

Headlines (question):
How can storytelling drive business results?
Which new products will hit the market next year?

The assertion makes a statement, which has to be backed up by evidence. The The assertion makes a statement, which has to be backed up by evidence. The question creates a curiosity gap. It draws the audience in. Either work and which one you use depends on the tone of your presentation.

To help you practice writing better headlines, focus on these six “how-to’s.”

Six keys to writing better headlines.

Length is important.

Two or three words will give you a label. Short headlines are sometimes harder to figure out. Most headlines we write run between 7 to 14 words. A good rule of thumb is to keep the headline below two lines. This key of headline length has similarities in SEO and content marketing. There, articles with longer headlines get double the traffic, double the shares, and more than five times as many backlinks.²

Make it readable.

Make sure it is clear and can be read at a glance. Test your headline by reading it aloud. It should roll off the tongue. It doesn’t need to be a complete sentence but shoot for sentence-like. This makes it readable. Punctuation helps. Style guides argue over Title Case and sentence case. Sentence case titles are easy to read. It’s the standard for Google.³ Make it your standard as well.

Use concrete language.

The more concrete the language of your headline, the better. This is a Strunk and White rule⁴ that you want to follow. It can persuade investors⁵ and increase customer satisfaction.⁶ Concrete language will work for you. Instead of “Executing our product strategy,” try “Five keys to a successful product launch.” The more concrete, the better.

Make it about you.

Every headline is a beat in a story. Every story has the audience as the hero in that story. The headline has to be relevant to the audience. At best, it evokes an emotional connection. Use you. Instead of “Five keys to a successful product launch,” make it “Five keys for our next successful product launch.”  Or better yet, “What can you do to make our next launch a winner?”

Remove acronyms, jargon, and terms of art.

Make the headline easy to understand.⁷ There are a lot of terms of art in your business. If you’re in technology, you might know what a churn walk is or port performance. You may not. You may understand what EPS, ECPD, AI, or ML are. You may not. But with a headline, it’s better to be sure. “Where are we losing business?” is a headline that’s concrete, compelling, and relevant. It also requires little to no thinking, compared to “Q2 Churn Walk.”

Let the verbs do the work for you.

Here is some old writing advice that’s useful in headlines. Let the verbs do the work for you. Consider,

Improving demand in our small business market.” Or,
Growing demand in our small business market.” Or,
Increasing demand in our small business market.” Or,
Thriving demand in our small business market.” Or,
Snowballing demand in our small business market.”
Mastering your verbs can make a difference.

Before you start typing.

Next time you are staring at the click to add title cursor in PowerPoint, choose a different path. Instead of merely “labeling” your slide, write a punchy headline.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

¹ Owens, Jeremy. “Zoom Made as Much Money in Three Months as It Did in All of 2019; Stock Shoots 22% Higher.” MarketWatch, 1 Sept. 2020.
² SEMRush The State Of Content Marketing. 2019 Global Report.
³ “Capitalization | Google Developer Documentation Style Guide.” Google Developers.
⁴ Ohmann, Richard. "Use definite, specific, concrete language." College English 41.4 (1979): 390-397.
⁵ "Pan, Lingling, et al. "Give it to us straight (most of the time): Top managers’ use of concrete language and its effect on investor reactions." Strategic Management Journal 39.8 (2018): 2204-2225.
⁶ Packard, Grant, and Jonah Berger. "How Concrete Language Shapes Customer Satisfaction." ACR North American Advances (2019).
⁷ Dwyer, Colin. “How to Write Great Headlines That Keep Readers Engaged: 5 Tips (and Examples).” NPR Training. (Rule#2)

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