Hear, hear! long and descriptive assertions may be more effective than short and crispy slide titles

I am busy preparing a new presentation and while crafting my slides, I (almost naturally) started writing full sentences in the title area. Up to recently I’ve always stuck to the principle that slide headings should be short, sweet, and tweetable – although I never use topic headlines like “Background”, “Our products”, or “Conclusions”. These are meaningless and, no matter how short they are, a waste of slide real estate.

But reading a twelve-year-old research paper by Michael Alley, “How the Design of Headlines in Presentation Slides Affects Audience Retention”, made me change my mind. The article challenges the efficiency of short catchy headlines, and suggests that full-sentence assertions increase both the audience’s attention and the retention of information. His research showed that students performed better after receiving presentations designed using an assertion-evidence approach, which combined sentence titles (the assertion) with visual elements like photos, charts, and diagrams (the evidence) instead of boring bullet lists.

Here’s an example of how a dull, bullet-ridden text slide may be converted in a more attractive one (that tells and shows exactly the same):

I must admit that the presentation that I’m currently preparing targets a relatively small and specialized business audience (and, no, it’s not about childhood obesity). I’m also aware that Alley’s principles may not apply to every single PowerPoint deck you build. But while crafting my visuals, I found out that these wordy and assertive headlines kind of enrich the highly graphical content I tend to create. They help me to develop my ‘story’ and let my audience keep track of the ‘plot’. As the title will be the first thing the people in the room read when I put up a slide, it will orient them to the upcoming content. And at the same time, I’m giving them a clear takeaway message – just take the title of this blog post as an example.

Download Michael Alley’s research paper:


I remember a pop song that was frequently played on the radio when I was a teenager. In 1975 the British band Barclay James Harvest recorded “Titles”. It was a musical tribute to The Beatles, and the lyrics were actually composed of a sequence of song titles from John, Paul, George and Ringo.

I introduced this earworm just to tell you to pay attention to the titles of your presentations and your slides. In an older post on this blog I described how I put on original presentation titles for grabbing my audience’s attention. Do you still remember what my “10 (light) years after the big bang”, “Why do hand-picked cherries provide no guarantee for a tasty pie?”, and “Making the volcano” presentations talked about?

To keep your presentation simple, you should refrain from overloading you visuals with text. This is why the words on top of your slides may play an important role in getting your message across. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Use the sequence of your slide headings as a ticker line to support your storyline, e.g. a slide titled “John was suffering from information overload …” followed by another one “… until we provided him with our analytics solution.”
  • Add creative titles to surprise, intrigue or provoke your audience. I experienced that many people appreciate references to (or variations on) song or book titles. I recently got positive feedback on an “All things great and small” visual (alluding to the book by James Herriot) which was part of an IOT presentation.


  • Make it easy for the tweeps in the room: design your slide titles for tweetability. Keep them crisp, short and sweet (and mention your twitterID on your first slide, so they can follow you, mention you and reach out about your speech.)
  • Repeat your key messages on top of your visuals. Many people have a visual memory and will better remember the words when they see them written than when they hear the same words spoken.
  • And remember that not all slides necessarily need a title on top. Your story is about what you tell, not about the words you show on the screen!

Read more about some of the topics mentioned above: