If you’re a scientist who wants to get your work recognized, then the titles you put on your talks, papers, and grants matter.

Today I had a conversation related to my bike shop that illustrates this point (and how to do it) clearly.

My business partner is doing a tele seminar series on bike touring.  She named the first interview:

“Bike touring with Ross & Laura”

I took one look at the title, and the record playing in my mind came to a screeching halt.

Here’s the problem with that title.  Few people know who Ross & Laura are.

And that leads to a deeper problem: if you don’t recognize a word or a name, it invokes no emotion for you one way or another.  That equates to “boring.”

If I say the name “Obama” I’m sure you have an immediate emotional response (whether positive or negative).

Hence, if the title was a”Bike Touring With Barak Obama” you’d probably be at least a bit curious.

The same point goes for scientific talk titles.  They don’t often use names, but they do convey concepts.

Those concepts can be dry and boring and unfamiliar to most people – in which case your title is doing nothing to draw people to your talk.

Or those concepts can be interesting, intriguing, and clearly understandable.

With our bike touring example, we might change the above to:

“Learning to live with only what you can carry on your bike, and loving it”

If you’ve had any practice at all with the English language, there is nothing unfamiliar in this sentence, and in fact it uses several words that convey emotion.

So the next time you set out to write a talk title, make sure to use words that the majority of your potential audience will understand.  Better yet if those words convey that there’s something interesting to be had here.

I’d like to hear about your best and worst talk titles!  Please leave a comment with your ideas.



    3 replies to "A simple lesson about titles"

    • DoctorMVH

      The paper title we wanted to use was “Shazam! “our bacteria” forms biofilms! In your face, Science!”. As you can tell, we felt it was a tremendous struggle for us to get that work published. Sadly, we went for a much more conventional title in the end…. but that title is still on my wall! 🙂

      • morgan

        I love that title!

        Oddly, what works to get the paper accepted is often almost the opposite of what gives a paper pull and magnetism (i.e. lots of readers) over the long haul. Methinks a good topic for future blog post.

        Anyway, I’m glad that you did get the work accepted, even with the necessary title change.

    • Sukumar

      The (review) paper for which I’ve received the most follow-up and reprint requests is entitled “Bio- and Chem-Informatics: Where do the twain meet?” (Curr. Opinion Drug Disc. Devel. 11, 311-319, May 2008)
      A technical paper is not a popular science article; one needs to strike the right balance between a catchy title and one with sufficient gravitas. You want to attract the readership, but not turn them off.

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