When I first learned how to design scientific presentations, I kept hearing the same advice from well-intentioned mentors: “Make sure your presentation tells a story!” they’d say. I understood what they meant in principle, but I had difficulty implementing this advice in my own presentations. In this article, I’m going to share a simple way to develop your “story” by concentrating on improving the quality of your slide titles.

Slide titles are crucial. They are the first thing the audience reads, and therefore they should orient the audience to the upcoming content of the slide. The best way to accomplish this goal is to state the main assertion of the slide as the title. Then, you are set up nicely to provide evidence of the assertion in the slide body. This technique is called assertion-evidence structure, and it has vastly improved my presentations. For more information, see here.

Why Assertive Slides Work

Assertive slide titles are beneficial because to be able to write the main assertion of the slide as the title, you must first know the main assertion of the slide. That sounds obvious, but I was surprised how difficult this is at first. Many of my slides from my earlier presentations had one of two problems. My introductory slides were prone to containing too many main assertions (the plight of using a bullet list!), while my results slides had a wishy-washy assertion hidden somewhere among the data. It was easy to see, in hindsight, how the audience would have trouble following my earlier work.

After I delivered a few presentations with my new style, I noticed that my delivery had improved as well. No longer was I struggling to grasp for the right words; the right words seemed to come naturally. I was also getting more questions afterwards, indicating that the audience was following and understanding. I attribute this improvement to the deeper thought I had invested to drafting the perfect title on each slide.

How to Craft Assertive Slide Titles

So how should you go about writing assertive slide titles? Well, I already mentioned that you should know the main takeaway message before you start. Next, word it as a complete sentence – phrases and sentence fragments are no good. On the slide master (if you’re using PowerPoint), reduce the title font size from 44 points to about 32-36 points, and don’t worry if your title takes up two lines (just make sure that you place the line break sensibly). With these settings, your title can be 15-20 words, as opposed to only 7-9 with the default settings.

I know what you may be thinking: “PowerPoint slides should have less words, not more“. True, but consider this: if each slide has a main message (and only ONE main message), you should spend words to make sure it’s as clear as possible. Also, I’ve noticed that a longer, clearer title eliminates the need for text in the body of the slide; most of the body text becomes redundant and therefore unnecessary.

An Example

Let’s compare assertive slide titles with some inferior alternatives:

Assertive Slide Titles to Guide Your Presentation
The first slide is from one of my earlier presentations. The title, “Quantifying nucleoli”, is better than “Results” in that it indicates something about the slide content. (A quick note: titles that are section headers, like “Introduction” or “Summary” have no place in scientific presentations, ever). But, can you decipher which conditions I was comparing? Or what I concluded from my data plots?

Now contrast “Quantifying nucleoli” with my assertive title, “Elongated (1-D) nuclei have fewer nucleoli than ellipsoidal (2-D) nuclei”. More words, yes, but the audience is now oriented to what I want them to see in the plots. Notice how you don’t even have to listen to me talk about the slide to understand it. This point is useful for audience members (like me!) who tend to “zone out” during scientific presentations.

Assertive Slide Titles to Guide Your Presentation

Finally, I’d like to call your attention to some of the subtle differences between my two titles. I’ve already mentioned the reduced font size, which allows more words without losing the emphasis of the enlarged font. Notice the placement of my text box, which uses the open space at the upper left corner. Also, my sentence-style capitalization and placement of the line break. The word “ellipsoidal” would have fit on the first line, but keeping the adjective with the noun is easier to read.

Last Words on Your Presentation

Writing assertive titles requires a lot of thought. However, don’t get discouraged if you find it challenging at first. Like everything, it gets easier with practice. It is thought well-spent. Writing assertive titles also takes courage. You are taking a risk by stating your claims in big, bold letters at the top of each slide because your audience might disagree with your interpretations. But, to disagree with you, they must have understood what you were trying to say. And after all, isn’t audience comprehension the point of presentations?

For more information and useful presentation tips, check out “The Craft of Scientific Presentations” by Michael Alley.

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