Article Category: Visual Aids

Slide Title Guidelines:
Use Assertions, Not Topics

Quick… think back to the last slide presentation you attended.

  • What kind of titles were used on the slides?
  • Do you remember any of them?
  • Were there titles like “Background”, “Research Study”, “October Sales”, and “Conclusions”?

If you are nodding to that last question (and most people reading this will be), you already know that most slide titles are pretty mundane: they are quickly written and quickly forgotten.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Slide titles can help communicate your message, and set the context of the slide for your audience.

In this article, we discuss five simple guidelines you can use to quickly improve your slides, and see how these guidelines apply to slide examples.

Slide Design Series

Slide Title Guidelines

These guidelines are easy to follow. Once you are aware of them, you will find that they are almost second nature.

  1. Slide titles should convey your main point as an assertion.
    Avoid using topics or labels as titles such as “Background”, “Research Study”, “Sales”, and “Conclusions”. Titles like this are weak and do little to help your audience understand the slide. Titles written as clear assertions provide meaning for your audience which is elaborated upon with the visual in the body of the slide (chart, photograph, diagram, table, etc.) and also with your verbal delivery.
  2. Slide titles should be crisp, not wordy.
    Titles should fit on one line (or, at most two lines). Spend the time to distill the essential meaning into a short, clear statement.
  3. Slide titles should be larger than any other text on the slide.
    In every medium where text is present, size conveys importance. (Think of posters, newspapers, books, reports, and even web pages like this one.) Large text is perceived as more important than small text. Since your slide title conveys your main point, you should make it the largest text on the slide. (I typically use 44 point text for titles.)
  4. Slide titles should be consistently located.
    In English and other left-to-right languages, the best place for the title is in the upper-left of the slide. That’s where your audience will glance first, before exploring the rest of the slide. If you choose to go against this guideline, be sure the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. (Beware placing title text along the bottom of a slide. In many presentation venues, your audience will have difficulty seeing the bottom edge of your slides due to heads of people in front of them.)
  5. Slide titles should be easy to read.
    Don’t make your audience struggle. Use a clean font and a color with strong contrast so your title can be read and understood at a glance.

If you follow the guidelines above, your audience will understand the purpose of the slide. This will help them as they view and study the evidence you have provided to support the assertion in the body of the slide.

Exceptions to the Guidelines

Slide titles should convey your main point as an assertion.

Like nearly all speaking guidelines, there are exceptions. In this case, there are many situations where you can safely ignore one or more of the guidelines above:

  • title slides, agenda slides, transition slides, housekeeping slides;
  • quotation slides (the main idea is the quotation, and so a separate title is rarely helpful);
  • setup slides which are employed as part of a sequence (e.g. the first slide might pose a problem or ask a rhetorical question, while the follow-up slide may have the solution as an assertion);
  • artistic slides; and
  • any other slide where a title is not warranted or perhaps even detrimental

Further, the guidelines above don’t apply if you are using an irregular presentation format, such as the Lessig Method.

These guidelines do, however, apply to the majority of normal “body” slides that are used in business, scientific, and classroom presentations. In most cases, if your slide has a title, it should follow the guidelines.

Proponents of Assertion Slide Titles

Michael Alley and Melissa Marshall offer comprehensive coverage of the benefits of assertions for slide titles. They have conducted research studies which show that students perform better after receiving presentations designed using the assertion-evidence method (as compared to traditional “topic”-titled slides). Their site also includes resources for instructors who teach this approach to slide design.

Olivia Mitchell provides an accessible overview of the assertion-evidence style.

Cliff Atkinson, author of Beyond Bullet Points:

Writing headlines in the form of complete sentences imposes a discipline on your ideas by forcing you to turn them into coherent thoughts and remove any ambiguity. […]

The point of the headline is to help your audience understand your point as efficiently as possible.

Slide Examples

Below I’ve given seven pairs of slides (taken from my PowerPoint design course), where the only difference is the slide title.

  • The left slide uses a “topic” or “label” title.
  • The right slide uses an assertion for a title to convey the primary meaning to the audience.

Slide Example #1

  • The title on the left (“Sensory Perceptions”) is the topic being discussed.
  • However, the title on the right makes the two-step process much clearer (stimuli must be [1] perceived and then [2] processed)

Slide Example #2

  • The title on the left adds no value. The slide is obviously about text sizes.
  • The title on the right emphasizes the key takeaway — that text readability is a critical factor to consider.

Slide Example #3

  • The title on the left is a weak topic, but leaves the audience wondering: is it good to decorate your text or not?
  • The title on the right is a forceful assertion that is reinforced by the slide evidence.

Slide Example #4

  • The title on the left describes what is being charted. That’s helpful, but is something that the presenter could explain.
  • The title on the right emphasizes the key takeaway — the new safety policies are working!

Slide Example #5

  • The title on the left establishes two chart options, but leaves the audience wondering which is better. While the “Do” label suggests line charts are better, it’s not clear why.
  • The title on the right emphasizes the key takeaway — line charts do a better job illustrating data trends than bar charts.

Slide Example #6

  • The title on the left gives the topic, but no meaning.
  • The title on the right emphasizes the key takeaway — that diagram labels should be placed in close proximity to the objects they label.

Slide Example #7

  • The title on the left is a form of rhetorical question. That’s not a bad idea, although it would be more effective if the presenter asked the rhetorical question before displaying the slide on the right…
  • The title on the right emphasizes the key takeaway — that photographs should be chosen over clip art. This assertion doesn’t say why… that’s part of my verbal delivery.
Slide Design Series

Summary of Slide Title Guidelines

If you follow these guidelines, your slides will provide effective support for your presentation.

  1. Slide titles should convey your main point as an assertion.
  2. Slide titles should be crisp, not wordy.
  3. Slide titles should be larger than any other text on the slide.
  4. Slide titles should be consistently located.
  5. Slide titles should be easy to read.

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Comments icon13 Comments

  1. John says:

    Excellent topic to address. Still I meet with much resistance from graduate students in my workshops when confronted with the assertion-evidence slide.
    Because they’ve seen nothing else. And many of their supervisors say the “old way is the only way”.
    John Kluempers (Germany)

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      True… “Old way is the only way” thinking often blocks progress.

  2. Brian Langston says:

    Another great article Andrew…keep up the good work. It is always a pleasure to read your stimulating take on the art of presenting…

  3. Andrew, loved reading this article. PowerPoint abuse is something we’ve all seen and dealt with. However, proper teaching, like this, can vastly improve the quality of our meetings.

  4. Andrew,
    Thank you for your article. You have brought together compelling examples to support your argument. One hidden advantage to creating assertion headlines is the effect that creating such a headline has on the speaker. We have found that speakers creating such headlines are more focused in their speaking and will eliminate extraneous details from the body of the slide that do not contribute to the assertion (or message).
    Best wishes,
    Michael Alley (Penn State)

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Since I began using assertions on slides years ago, I have experienced the positive effect you refer to, Michael. The assertions habit has helped me clarify [1] my overall message, [2] the visual on the slide, and [3] how I deliver it.

  5. Terry Lavelle says:

    Thank you Andrew.
    I don’t know how you keep coming up with topics, but well done.
    This is a great idea. I hadn’t thought about it but it makes so much sense.

  6. Eddie says:

    Great article Andrew. I especially like if somebody provides real examples (don’t/do). I personally do not like 2 lines titles, so I would not recommend those. Based on my experience nobody reads such a long titles. I also recommend using info graphics on the slides. It is a great way to explain your message using minimum amount of words.

  7. Craig Hadden says:

    Andrew, I’m interested in your thoughts on the timing of *when* to display the assertion as you talk, and to what degree it might “steal the thunder” from the speaker.

    Below, I discuss a related topic (namely how to stick to just 1 idea per slide) and I use this example of a (spoken) sentence to illustrate a point: “Our solution has 3 benefits, which are that it’s usable, reliable, and scalable.” In the context of an assertive title, to me it seems “Our solution has 3 benefits” would be good, because it asserts the main point yet also intrigues listeners about what the benefits *are* – so people stay focused to find out. A more thorough title of “Our solution is usable, reliable, and scalable” would be a more memorable and meaningful takeaway, but I believe would also cause people to tune out to the speaker because he or she is relegated to backing up what the slide says, instead of vice versa.

    I think the people at M62 are wary about titles, as #2 on their list of 10 “presentation myths” is: “Slide titles should summarise the content of the slide”:

    What’s your view on those examples?

  8. Andrew,
    I couldn’t agree more – many of us have sat through terrible presentations with no content. For me, the worst ones are always presentations where the you’re left wondering what on earth the key message is. Using titles like this is a great idea.

  9. Tom Fuszard says:

    Great suggestions, Andrew.

    Coincidentally, I’m developing a PPT presentation right now. Your column has caused me to review some of my headlines. Plan to make them stronger!

    – Tom

  10. Eric Roth says:

    Thank you for sharing these clear, simple, and persuasive examples. While many engineering and science students and professors use this approach, I suspect that many other students (high school and university) could benefit by choosing this powerful technique.

  11. Taylor says:

    I would additionally add that assertive slide titles are even MORE important when you aren’t actually presenting your slides, and instead are passing them around as a proposal or client deliverable.

    Use the title to tell your audience EXACTLY what your point is, don’t make them guess or try and figure it out.

    Thanks for the great post!

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