July 4, 2010

Put your main idea in the tagline of your slide

In business communication, your primary objective is to transfer information effectively. This is done best by expressing your main idea first. Here we’ll talk about presentations, but the concepts are equally applicable to emails, voicemails, memos and all other means of communication.

In each slide’s tagline, put the slide’s main idea, not just a title…

Your taglines shouldn't just be a titles, they should be ideas

Your taglines shouldn’t just be a titles, they should be ideas

PowerPoint and Keynote would have you fooled: in their templates, the slide’s top element is called a “title”. And 95% of presenters out there fall in the trap by placing a title in that space. The problem is that a title isn’t enough: it might give some information about the content of the slide, but, by itself, it is not making a significant contribution. In the words of Guy Kawasaki, “the significance of what you’re saying is not always self-evident, let alone shocking and awe-inspiring.”

So do yourself a favor and be part of the 5% that get it: don’t put a title there; instead, put the main idea—or the summary—of your slide. (Think about how the title of a newspaper article summarizes the content of that article to allow you to decide if you want to read the whole thing.)

Sure it is more complicated to write a summary because you have to formulate what that summary is: you have to interpret the information of your slide and synthesize it in a 10-to-20-word statement. But guess what? To be an effective thinker, you have to go through that process anyway, so you might as well write the conclusion on your slide.

… and reap the benefits

There are many, many advantages associated with putting your main idea on top. Here are the top five.

You improve your logic. By having to interpret your data and summarize it in a short statement, you are forced to think in depth about what you are presenting. Does this data make sense? Is this conclusion really what the data is showing? Is this really what I should be showing?

You are building a powerful story. Your taglines combine to give a summary of your communication—its storyline. So, by summarizing your findings, you can easily see if your story flows and troubleshoot it if it doesn’t. (If it doesn’t, it’s because you are presenting the wrong information or the right one but at the wrong place.) By summarizing each slide in its tagline, you can eliminate the irrelevant information and pinpoint the missing relevant one!

You can deliver your presentation in a fraction of the time. Have you ever been in a situation where you were told to prepare a 60-minute deck only to be given just 20 minutes to present it? By having the summary of each slide already prepared, you can adapt to these contingencies. Again, this is not limited to just presentations. Have you ever received a two-page email and wished you could understand it in 10 seconds? If that email had been summarized in its “subject” field and each supporting idea within the mail had been clearly signaled (like the ones in orange on this page), you could. You could then decide if it was worth it to spend the time to read the entire thing or not.

Summarizing the essence of your communication and putting on top applies to other media, not just presentations

Summarizing the essence of your communication and putting on top applies to other media, not just presentations.

You are laying out the ground for a better discussion. The summary allows your audience to understand your slide’s message by reading one phrase. Just one! How powerful is that? Now they might not agree with your interpretation of the data but at least they understand what you are saying, so you’re engaging them for a deeper, more meaningful conversation.

You are building a powerful reference deck. You’re presenting your summary today, but a key decision maker might be absent. Or someone—including you!—might want to get back to your presentation in a few months. By having the “so what” of each slide explicitly at the top, it’s easy to understand the message without the presenter.


Alley, M., et al. (2006). “How the design of headlines in presentation slides affects audience retention.” Technical communication 53(2): 225-234.