Tired of Tired Titles? How to Write Lecture Titles that Work

Ken looks right.jpg

Somebody, somewhere has probably researched this, but apparently we humans are attracted to those who claim to solve our problems. If the speaker is credible, titles with “how to” in them will catch our attention. So here’s a title waiting for you to

write the appropriate lecture. “Jammed up against a brickwall? How to climb those walls using wills and probate.” (You can put anything that works after “using”)
The first part poses the problem as a question. The reader internally responds to the question, and is set up for the “how-to” statement. Some people do not bother with the question lead in. I remember Rick Crume did a lecture entitled “How to Plug into Online Library Catalogs ” at the FGS Conference in Orlando in 2003. At the same conference George Morgan gave a lecture , “How to Get the Most out of this Conference”. And Scott Peeler’s presentation was “How to Increase Local Society Membership”. Obviously in Florida you don’t waste time but get right into the solutions. I wonder if it makes a difference. What do you think? Include the question?

The “How-to bit” is actually part of a formula that looks like this:

HOW TO + VERB + [product or service or some other NOUN] + [benifit derived].

For example “How to Surmount Brick Walls and Find New Ancestors”. Or

“How to Combine & Correlate Evidence to Solve Research Problems”
Would “how-to” attract more people to your presentation? Tell me about it.            I may need to re-title some of my best lectures.


5 responses to “Tired of Tired Titles? How to Write Lecture Titles that Work

  1. Hi,
    Glad you took a peek at the comment. I found an interesting website that deals with creating titles for articles. I ‘ll bet it could help you create lecture or lesson titles too!
    Check it out at http://www.writing-world.com/basics/titles.shtml


  2. Enjoy your blog but would really like to be able to read the comments. Can’t they be larger?

  3. Ken,

    I grabbed my copy of the 2005 NGS Phoenix syllabus and see on the first day:

    “Finding Females”
    “Tips and Tricks…”
    “Clues at your Fingertips…”
    “Getting the Most Out of…”
    “Grab ’em with Graphics”
    “Solving the Mystery…”
    “Googling for Grandma”

    I cherry picked the ones that “grabbed” my interest.

    They fit a formula of ACTION words that pique your interest or have a bit of humour in them. Many of the lectures have what Tom Lynch (a famous US lecturer on Winning Presentations – he’s done them for 20 years or more) calls “Horse Titles.” You know, like “Death Certificates, Obituaries and Probate Records.” That was the title of a Sheila Benedict talk at the same conference. Her subtitle was “What the Dead Can Tell You.” Tom Lynch would have used that as the first and only title.

    It may be immaterial for a serious and respectable conference, but in a competitive environment (picking you for a speaker over someone else, for instance) it may make the difference. If I’m reading down the list of talks at 2 PM I pick Tom Jones “Solving the Mystery…” over “Death Certs, etc.” if I don’t have a clear preference. Frankly, I’d love to have heard both of them.

    I have tried to build a brand locally with a title starting “Pursuing Your Elusive Ancestor…” followed by “in Census Records,” or “in Probate Records,” or “in Military Records,” etc. I’ve done two so far, and my local group now expects me to include it in the title -and it comes up in our everyday conversations about research problems.

    As an engineer, my presentations were laden (maybe “leaden” too) with horse titles on my slides, my script embellished the bullets on the slide, etc, because that was the expected style in our company and industry. Unfortunately, I tend to do the same with my genealogy presentations – too many words, too many slides, not enough graphics, etc. I’m trying to improve…I mentioned the Dollarhide and Meitzler talks at SDGS some time ago – Bill showed about 5 slides in one presentation – all census record images, no bullets, no fancy graphics, and lectured 50 minutes using the limited number of slides. Leland had more slides, but they weren’t flashy or full of graphics. They were both effective speakers.

    Cheers — Randy

  4. I have a friend with a storefront art school who will let me use her place to run genealogy classes. I am thinking of doing one night sessions rather than trying to get people to sign up for an entire class. I think your ideas about Titles that grab are good, but I tend to be too wordy & arcane.

    My first idea is sort of Beyond the Basics, that is what to do after you gather up hundreds of names and thousands of dates. The 5th step in the Genealogy Research Cycle is Using/Sharing what you learn. What about

    Working Step 5 Sharing Your Research Results
    Use It Or Lose It Making Sense of Your Data
    Taming the Data Tiger Making Your Research Matter
    Putting Fun Into Genealogy New Ideas for Old Data

    Any suggestions or favorites (or are they are punk?)

    I’ve thought that a session about the Census should be called

    Making Sense of the Census

    This storefront is in Park Ridge, IL. Contact me if you are interested in more details.


  5. Thanks for the comments Desta. Your titles generally feel familiar.

    I am not sure if this is a good thing or not. My own tendancy is to have too many words in a title. As the presentation ages, the title evolves a bit. Title effectiveness may depend on the prospective students knowlege of the subject. In my post I suggest one model. The first simply begins with “How to…”. There is a second model I am attrractedto. This title format puts a short tag in front of that how-to phrase. For example, “End game: how to evaluate death records”. Another title might be “Probing Probate:How to Use Probate and Estate Files”. The cutesy bit comes first. Short. The How-to bit follows. The parts are seperated by a colon.

    Some people find titles like this work for them, “Five Ways to Use the Census Effectively” or “Four steps to Evaluate Heritage Books and Local Histories”. Usually you will not want to exceed seven of whatever units you use. “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Genealogists” has been used. As has “Making Sense of the Census”

    Order a copy of the NGS conference syllabus and study the titles that attract you, and those that do not. Look at the words, not the content.

    Good luck.


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