“Slide Titles … Scratch that … Use Sentence Headers for Clarity and Focus in Slide Design”

In many engineering presentations, slide headers are used to indicate the topic or subject of a slide. As in this case study presented by Technical Arts Consulting, this usually involves a sentence fragment, such as in this visual [1]. But a title such as “Platinum Catalyst + Aqueous Solution” does not effectively frame the technical content; certainly, it indicates a topic, but the main point the audience needs to take from that slide remains elusive.

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In Slide Rules, part of the IEEE ProComm sponsored series titled “Professional Engineering Communication,” Traci Nathans-Kelly and Christine G. Nicomento recommend substituting a short sentence instead of a fragment for the header for slides, like the one shown in Figure 2. In this example, the main technical point is clear; “High powered modelling is now informed by quantum chemical calculations,” as the header, frames the speaker’s point and provides grounding for the audience. Using sentence headers allows for the take-away to be immediately apparent. Then, the rest of the slide’s acreage can serve as visual evidence or support for that main point.

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Furthermore, they argue, using this strategy consistently will make presentations easier to give while improving recall for both the speaker and the audience. Archiving slides for legacy purposes improves, too, when the notes feature is used to support this approach (this is covered at length in their book). More examples are available on their website, and more will be released over time. Slide Rules, available here, provides many more principles and case studies for slide design, but goes beyond slides into presentation structure, archiving technical work, delivery techniques, team presentations, communication change management, and audience analysis.

Their argument for sentence header + visual evidence stems from their work with Michael Alley, a professor at Penn State who argues for an Assertion-Evidence structure in slide design. Alley’s research indicates that slides are best structured around an assertion based sentence title, and evidence (preferably visual in nature) in the body of the slide, used as supporting that sentence header. His research, in a university context, has shown that the assertion-evidence model leads to better understanding and recall.

Summary: Several expert practitioners suggest that sentence headers, rather than fragmented headers, provide a more effective way of framing technical content, helping the audience understand and recall complex information.

Challenge: Now, think about how you might tranform your own practice when creating slides. While it may be different than what you see at work or school, this technique has been remarkably successful in many engineering firms. What first steps would you make towards using sentences more often as the header? At the same time, what hesitations might you have in using a format that is different than that of your colleagues of managers? (Those hesitations will be addressed in a future column.)

[1] Technical Arts Consulting. “Sentence Headers in Slides: Case Study #2.” June 20, 2014. Accessed: July 15, 2014. http://techartsconsulting.com/2014/06/20/sentence-headers-in-slides-case-study-2/

[2] M. Alley. “Assertion-Evidence Structure in Slide Design.” Accessed: July 15, 2014.  http://writing.engr.psu.edu/slides.html

[3] M. Alley. “Slide Research.” Accessed: July 15, 2014.  http://writing.engr.psu.edu/research.html