Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Talk Titles

Let’s talk about talk titles…

Part 1. Importance
We have found that there are 3 key factors people use to choose which talks they attend during a conference.
  1. Name of presenter
  2. Competition
  3. Title


“Patrick Stewart is speaking in room 1. Cool I gotta check that out.”
Name is pretty much a on/off. Either the person knows you and likes you or doesn’t. Either way it’s out of your control. At least, it’s out of your immediate control. But if someone is famous, or at least ‘tech famous’. That is a huge factor in choosing a session.


“Your  speaking in room 2? Too bad, Patrick Stewart is in room 1 .”
Also out of your control is who is speaking at the same time as you. Often there is the problem of ‘Too many good talks at once’. In fact, we actively try to cultivate this problem :-)


“Hmm… intro to Cobol, 5 tips for Agile, Ignoring the Fish… Guess I’m going to 5 tips for Agile   ”
The last thing we choose on is title. This is the one thing a presenter has control over.

What about the description?

“Did you see the Talk about TDD?”
”What talk about TDD?!?”
Many people feel the description should be part of how people make decisions. Unfortunately that’s just not true. In fact many people don’t even read the description. Most make their choices the day of the conference. First looking at the overall schedule which doesn’t even include descriptions. Maybe if they are really having trouble deciding between 2 talks they will read those descriptions, but they still won’t read the other descriptions for the talks they have already discounted.

Part 2. Good Titles
Unfortunately, very few titles are good. Part of the problem is we have some really bad models  to follow when it come to titles.

Here’s an example:
“Stop Drawing Dead Fish” is an excellent talk by Bret Victor. If you know who Bret is, you might already be convinced of this (see part1: Name of presenter). Otherwise, you might trust me, or realize this talk has 80k views.
However, based on this title can you tell me if this is an excellent talk for you? Do you have any idea whatsoever about the topic?
I will say that the title makes perfect sense after you’ve seen the talk. Not that this will help to you choose to go to this session.

Worse, most movies and books and Tv  are also bad examples.
The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, The African Queen, Archer, Arrow, Firefly, Breaking Bad,  It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  

None of these titles make any sense without a lot of marketing to let people ‘in on the meaning’. One of my favorite shows, that I would recommend for anyone in Tech, is horribly named “Better off Ted”.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is such a poorly discoverable name, that fans that had read SIX books on Harry Potter and seen all the movies had no clue what it meant before they read the book. If it didn’t have the name “Harry Potter” in it;  probably no one would have known to read it.

1.Title need to be discoverable

Your title shouldn’t be clever, it’s shouldn’t be enticing, it should clear and discoverable. It should allow someone reading it to say “This is a topic that is important to me”. Rather than try to seduce people into your session, allow the right people to find you.

This can be tricky.
For example, here are 3 titles from a recent conference:
  1. EoS in Kafka
  2. Kotlin: Uncovered
  3. React Fundamentals Workshop

I would argue these are all the same type of title. However, while React is popular enough to be self explanatory, EoS in Kafka is basically nonsense to everyone. Kotlin is somewhere on the edge, many people haven’t heard about it, but enough have that it might be clear enough.  

2.Author’s are the Worst people to name their own talks.

The worst part is that being able to see if a title is “clear” or “nonsense” requires a bit of a beginners mind. You want to make sure that someone that has no idea what the talk is about can correctly guess the topic by title alone. The title needs to be clear to the people with the least knowledge about the talk, yet the person with the MOST knowledge is the one that usually picks the title. :-(

3.Techniques to pick a good title

My favorite technique to pick a title is to ask the audience right after the talk to write down what they think the title should have been. You’ll find that the vast majority write down the same thing. That should be the title. Unfortunately, this method is tricky because often we need a good title before we give the talk.

There is a  good Test for how good a title is.

  1. Show the title (only) to a person that knows nothing about the talk.
  2. Ask them what they think the talk is about?
  3. If it matches, it’s a good title, if not it isn’t.

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