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Increase Student Viewership with Striking Titles

By Scott Buros / March 2009

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Here's an interesting exercise: Examine your clothing, the publications on your bookshelf, the decals on the cars outside your window, and even the name stamped on the computer where you are reading this article. What you have just witnessed is perhaps the most ruthless competition in the world—the race for your attention. This is a contest won and lost in an instant; one of the greatest assets that any of us can possess in this battle is a striking title.

Unfortunately, few designers put much effort into creating a striking title for their e-learning projects. The title is usually a dull summary of the content ("Utility Scale Aggregation and Procurement Methods") or a cliché phrase ("International Markets: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"). Rarely are we surprised by a creative presentation title; when that happens we seem to be more curious about a course, anticipate a better experience, and actually click on it in a list of hundreds of offerings.

If you make money based on course access or increase the likelihood of viewership, you will want to incorporate some guidelines into your design practices right away. How can you create a striking title for your project? Here are a few tricks we can learn from the best title writers: journalists, novelists, and event organizers. Also, if you wish to read additional information on this topic, check out Lisa Neal's article on catchy and provocative titles.

A Smack in the Face, a Pull of the Ear: Getting Attention with Titles through Sense and Experience
Some of the most powerful titles are those that invite us to experience events through our five senses. Take, for instance, a title such as "Farmer's Market Food Fight" used recently in the New York Times to preview an in-depth story on America's relationship with food. Coupled with the well-matched photograph (see Figure 1), the title plays on memories we've formed watching films such as "Animal House" or experienced ourselves, such as the childhood barbeque turned potato salad onslaught that I survived. These visions of what a food fight is reside in our sensory memory buoyed by strong smells (in my case, dill), tactile sensations (mayonnaise on my fingers), and sound (the clatter of silverware being poured onto a cafeteria floor). Match this with the unmistakable effects of adrenaline, which scientists also believe has a strong influence on memory, and you have a title that readers will not soon forget.

This is not to say that every time you write a title it has to allude to all five senses and the hormonal effects of adrenaline. But ask yourself, would FDR's "Fireside Chats" have seemed so intimate if we didn't have that sense of smoke and heat that comes from being gathered around the fire? Or would Andre Dubus III's novel The House of Sand and Fog seem as gloomy and complicated without these damp elements? Clearly the five senses can make us more focused on what we read and create anticipate for what follows.


Figure 1. Mark Klimas's photo for the Oct 10th 2008 issue of the New York Times "Farmers' Market Food Fight" by Jill Santopietro.

That Title is Really Bad, in a Good Way
One of the best ways to write a provocative title is to juxtapose two very different elements, such as Gary Talese accomplished with the title of his famous 1966 Esquire profile, "Frank Sinatra has a Cold." This article was groundbreaking in many ways, particularly because Talese wrote the entire piece without speaking with Sinatra himself, but rather with the entourage that surrounded him. The result was a masterpiece that intimately described the entertainer from an angle previously unseen. But even more impressive: The essence of the article is expressed by its simple five word title. On one side, you have Frank Sinatra, perhaps the most glamorous celebrity of the day; a man people yearned to catch a glimpse of. Then on the other side, you have the common cold, which is just that, a common, unpleasant thing that people want to avoid. This concept snags our attention as it is, but then when we consider the title further it also becomes clear that Frank Sinatra, a celebrity and therefore someone who is often guarded from the public, will be shown at his most intimate, in a way that few of us want to be seen by even our significant others—ill and vulnerable. The title forces you to read on.

Another example of a title that draws attention with polar contrast appears in the schedule for the "2008 Improving University Teaching Conference" held in Glasgow, where one speaker conducted a lecture entitled "Demonstrating Science with a Stack of Jumbo Playing Cards." Science—something that seems so concrete and technical—stands juxtaposed with something that seems simple and erratic such as oversized playing cards.

Contrast grabs attention, and expresses something exciting, making it seem that the media we are about to consume is like nothing else we've ever seen before.

Letting Your Readers Feel En-Titled
In many ways a title is nothing more than a sales pitch, and there are times when the straight-forward approach is best. Sure we all love a title that's a snappy triple entendre we can repeat at the office, but the truth is when it comes to titles, the direct approach can be just as effective. Just have a peek at the magazine rack the next time you're at the newsstand and check out the latest issue of Cosmopolitan or Men's Health where editors slap straight-forward titles like "How to Buy Your Perfect Pair of Jeans" or "How to Injury-Proof Your Workout." There's nothing that thrilling or creative about either of those two examples, and yet we struggle to look away. The reason is that these titles speak directly to us, and offer information we feel we need. Notice how both these titles use the word "your" in them. With that simple word, they earn the ability to be blunt because we know the content applies to us directly and there is no need to beat around the bush. This technique of offering direct advice to your eLearning audience is an easy tactic to incorporate into your titles, particularly in those programs that are offering "how to" information (for example, "Five Steps to Customize Your Browser.")

Beware: Full disclosure plays a big role in this sort of headline. The title must offer an honest promise. If it announces "A flat stomach in three weeks," it better live up to its claim. One major change that has taken place in the media over the past 10 years is the movement toward a shorter news cycle. Because of this trend, the art of title writing has also become more impacted by the issue of time. Just imagine if next week you read a story titled, "Are Cellphones the Wave of the Future?", or if this Christmas you read a piece called, "How to Pick Out the Ideal Summer Swimsuit," or a white paper with the headline, "How to Keep Your Sales Team Motivated Through this Economic Boom." More than likely you're not going to read any of these articles because the information being offered in them doesn't have any immediate value for you, and like all media consumers, we are living in the now.

When you write a title it needs to instantly matter to the reader. It doesn't take a lot of effort to transform even outdated titles into information that seems like it should be part of a split screen on the next episode of "24." For example, take that cellphone title and rework it to something like "Ten Ways the Modern Cellphone is Reinventing the Present." Flip the swimsuit headline to: "Get Ready for a Winter Getaway with the Perfect Swimsuit for Your Body." Even the out-of-touch sales motivation title can be rearranged to sound more pressing with "Keeping Your Sales Team's Foot on the Gas through Thick and Thin." It's all about perspective, and although timely content is a must, certain pieces will remain eye catching and evergreen if you just title them in a way that puts your students on the clock.

Search and Enjoy: Make Your Titles Stand out on the Web
Larry Page, co-founder of Google, has been quoted as saying, "The ultimate search engine would basically understand everything in the world, and it would always give you the right thing. And we're a long, long ways from that." This fact is extremely important for anyone who hosts content on the Web, because it means that writing catchy titles is no longer the only requirement when composing content, but also that titles must be phrased in a way so that they are attractive to search engines. The truth is, no matter how engaging a title may be, if it doesn't get brought up in the first few pages of a search engine or Learning Management System by people looking for your information, it needs to be reworked.

A great example of how important searchability is to any title can best be shown by typing the words "dog training for beginners" into the Google search bar and checking out the listings that come up. The first training company listed is called "Beginners Dog Training" and although this brand name may not be that eye snatching, it will likely generate more visitors than the more creatively named "Canine University" found on page 10. Use a keyword density tool to check all your titles for their searchability as well as Google your presentations to see where they show up on likely searches that your desired audience would make.

The Greatest Title in the History of Western Civilization: or Other Exaggerations, Untruths, and Flat out Lies We Tell Our Audience
Along with being engaging, clearly written, and easy to find, good titles need to inspire credibility. After all, whether you're getting someone to open an email, inviting them to an online course, or just asking them to proofread a document you've written for a client, you are requesting that your reader/viewer enter into a contract with you. The agreement formed in this contract is a simple one: The reader consumes some form of media the writer has created, and gets something out of the piece. If this doesn't happen, the reader feels cheated. Always remember: A title should be a clear and honest promise.

Oftentimes this rule is ignored, particularly in marketing presentations and white papers. How often have you seen something like "The One Life Change You Need to Make to Get out of Debt Today," or "10 Ways to Leave a Customer Begging for Your Business No Matter What You Sell." Titles racked with hyperbole and empty promises undercut any credibility or rapport you may have with your audience; those of us savvy enough to know you are lying won't listen to what you have to say, and those of us who you do fool are going to leave your presentation thinking that no matter how helpful the information you gave us, it wasn't as great as you promised. With this in mind, anyone writing titles for any sort of business media and e-learning course should make sure they evaluate what title they apply using the old journalism addage, "If it lies, it dies."

What Should I Call It Now?
Having explored several aspects of title writing, it's easy to see why many authors spend almost as much time titling their work as they do writing the piece's initial draft, and why companies spend millions of dollars coming up with brand names that won't leave us absent minded in the supermarket checkout line. A title need only be creative, memory jogging, and thought provoking. Achieve that and your work will become a beacon that your readers will be drawn toward.

About the Author
Scott Buros is a creative writer and consultant for Rexi Media, a Danville, CA-based company that teaches presentation skills.

©2009 ACM

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  • Wed, 12 Aug 2009
    Post by Rory Tate

    Impressed and relieved to find such an factual piece about the very endevor we are about to get into for the first time. I think the application of this information will save us a lot of time and grief.

  • Fri, 06 Mar 2009
    Post by Tony

    Loved the article because it gave me a new perspective. Thanks!