From the Lab: The Power of Titles

In The Science of Speaking, I talk about Michael Alley’s “assertion evidence approach” for titling visual aids, noting that having good titles for your visuals can significantly increase what your audience understands and remembers.

Recently, I came across a great example of this. First, let’s see what you make of this paragraph:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell, After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

If you’re anything like the participants in a 1972 study by John Bransford and Marcia Johnson, this paragraph probably doesn’t make much sense. And if you were asked about it a few minutes from now, you probably wouldn’t remember much about it.

But what if I told you that the title of the paragraph above was “Washing clothes is simple and essential”?

Now, doesn’t everything immediately make sense? What Bransford and Johnson found was that when context was provided upfront, participants were much more likely to understand and remember what they read. (Interestingly, if the context was provided afterward, it didn’t help at all.)

Of course, it has to be a good title: adding a generic title that said “The Procedure” wouldn’t help. Which is exactly what the assertion-evidence approach is all about: rather than titling your slide “Results,” it says, you should put the results right in the title!

Note: Of course, this is only half of the process: after you come up with a good title, you’ll want to find visual evidence to support your assertion, rather than simple presenting a block of text!

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