What’s in a Name? Guidelines for Presentation Titles

The recent trend towards online voting to select presentations for events at SQL Server conferences got me thinking: this is a great opportunity to look at how people vote, and consider what this means about presentation titles and abstracts.Drawing of a girl with her hand raised, saying, "I entitle thee Talky Geeky Obscuritus!"

Let’s Admit It: People Don’t Read Abstracts

When there’s a large slate of sessions to choose between and the abstracts aren’t easy to see, people definitely don’t read abstracts.

This isn’t too different from physical conferences. When you’re looking at your program, you may glance at the abstracts, but most of what you check out is the title and sessions. In both cases, you’re busy doing other things and you have a lot of information to absorb– you make the best choice you can based on your limited, valuable time.

The Decision Tree

The decision tree for choosing a session starts out pretty simple.

Most people have “must-see” type choices, either based on really wanting to see the presenter, or having a real need for the session topic. We’ve all had the feeling of, “OH, I could REALLY use that session!” because it’s applicable to some specific problem in our lives.

Based on my life experience (including surviving middle school, watching elections, and running for committees), the decision tree starts like this:

  • Is the presenter someone you’ve got a nerd crush on? If so: vote
  • Otherwise, is the session something you really need? If so: vote

These are both very valid reasons to vote for sessions. People who are well known for giving great presentations definitely deserve to get votes for that track record. We have a lot of superstars, which is fantastic!

But for everything that doesn’t fall into these category, things get complicated. And that’s for most sessions.

How I’ve Been Choosing Titles

I like to choose session titles that are fun and quirky. That’s just the type of session I’d like to go see– something a little out of the ordinary.

While I care about the titles a lot, and I spend a lot of time on them, I haven’t had many other criteria other than “quirky” and “amusing.”

What I’m Changing, and Why

My criteria aren’t enough. I need to make my sessions appeal to more people other than me. After all, my presentations aren’t for me.

While my titles and abstracts should still be in my own voice, I need to add more information to them to help people understand more about what I want to give them.

Pseudo-Scientific Guidelines

From my highly unscientific observations, here are some guidelines:

  • People like Tips and Tricks.
  • People like to learn a finite number of things.
  • People like practical advice they can apply quickly.
  • People like new features.
  • People like to have difficult to explain topics explained, but they need to be broad (performance, internals, memory).
  • People like T-SQL. It’s a very common tool for everyone, we use it frequently, and we all like a good session to help us think about it differently.

When I think about how I make my own choices, this does make sense. I like all of these things, too.

This doesn’t mean my next session will be titled “The Top 10 Tips and Tricks for SQL Server Performance using T-SQL and New Features!!!111!!!1!”

I may or may not use a number in presentation titles. But I’m going to consider them.

But, when writing titles (and abstracts, although I am convinced people don’t read them), I will ask myself:

  1. Does this show I will demonstrate something practical and useful?
  2. Does this help people understand why it is applicable and/or useful and interesting to know?
  3. Is there a way I can make this more practical, while still having it  in my own voice?

And I may sometimes go with a title that I feel is a little boring, if it’s easier to understand.

Am I Selling Out?

I don’t think so. But let me know. 🙂

5 Comments. Leave new

  • Definitely not selling out. I love the list – people like tips, learning finite numbers of things, etc. It’s so true. And I will stand up and admit that I don’t often read abstracts. When looking over session lists, I try to hit people who are friends, people who I think need the support, sessions where I feel my own experience is lacking. If these categories overlap, then it’s all the better. I only really delve into abstracts if I come across a time slot where there are multiple things that I’d like to learn, in which case I’m looking to find out more information to make a better decision. Sometimes I make the wrong choice though, so accurate and honest abstracts are equally as important.

    • So remember, folks, if you see Matt in your session he thinks you need support 😉

      In all seriousness – great post. Lots to think about when writing those abstracts.

      • It’s funny— no matter how many times I give a talk, I’ll always appreciate having people I know come see the talk to support me.

        It’s not really a confidence thing for me, it just makes it more enjoyable. I do like talking to new people, but it’s especially fun when I have someone in the audience who I also know. I’m getting to the point where I may start asking them to give me little cues: maybe a reminder to slow down a bit, or a reminder that it’s getting close to wrap up. Usually what I get is a friendly smile, which just always adds a little extra something. It’s also nice because you can get feedback from them verbally afterwards, and ask them questions about how part of the talk went over.

        I can say from experience that Matt is a great audience— he’s the kind of attentive listener who helps a speaker feel like they’re connecting.

  • You absolutely aren’t selling out. After 4 years on the PASS program committee I’m a big fan of clean, simple, explanatory abstract titles. Clever may be nice but it doesn’t help people decide if your session is for them. Too many times I’ve seen titles so clever that I can’t figure out what they’re talking about.

  • Your presentations want to remind you that’s Mr. Talky Geeky Obscuritis


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