Titles Do Make A Difference

Not your job title – the title of that paper you’d like to get published or conference proposal you want to submit. Now that ACRL has announced the call for papers, panels and more for the 2011 15th National Conference in Philadelphia, many academic librarians will begin thinking about submitting proposals. I believe the 2009 ACRL conference had one of the all-time lowest acceptance rates for papers and panels, and I expect that 2011 will be just as if not more competitive. So you need an edge. Here’s my advice for you. Don’t underestimate the importance of the title you choose for your submission.

Do proposals with catchy titles really get selected more frequently than those with bland titles? I don’t know. I do know that as you review the 2009 program you will see that many of the papers and panels that were accepted have catchy titles that effectively connect into the conference theme or locale. For example, “Assessment Baristas: Can We Start a Rubric for You?” Seattle. Starbucks. Baristas. That title taps into the locale quite nicely. Admit it. That’s sure beats something like “Creating Rubrics for Information Literacy Assessment.” Comparing the title of proposals that get accepted to those that get rejected and analyzing their “catchiness” factor would definitely make for an interesting research paper. BTW, take note of the (mostly) catchy titles for the conference tracks. As you read the 2011 call for participation you see there are references to the interdependence theme and a host of references to colonial and revolutionary times in Philadelphia. How might you work this into the title of your proposal?

Why catchy titles? Try imagining the guy or gal on the committee that selects papers or panels. This colleague is facing a stack of 200 or 250 papers. It’s critically important to capture that person’s attention right away, perhaps within 10 or 15 seconds – maybe even less. Failure to grab the reviewer’s attention immediately can be the difference between making the cut and being cut. Sorry if that sounds somewhat superficial and anti-scholarly. I’m sure we’d like our reviewers to focus solely on the content and judge proposals strictly on quality factors, but these folks are only human and a great title is going to get more attention than a boring one. And to some extent I think most of us would prefer a conference program with titles that catch our attention, demonstrate creative thinking and compel us to want to attend. Given the choice between two programs of relatively equal interest and potential quality, I think the one with the catchy titles is going to win out most of the time. While there’s no precise formula for coming up with a catchy title for your presentation, here are some ideas that might help:

1. Right at the top of the list is contemplating the themes and the location. Try to work one, the other or both into your title. For the Seattle conference two colleagues and I did a talk about user experience. Seattle has one of the world’s most popular user experiences – the Pike Place fish market. So we worked that into our title, “If Fish Markets Can Do It Then So Can We”. For the 15th annual conference in Philadelphia the revolution and independence – and interdependence – themes are ones to consider. If you’re not that familiar with the city, browse some visitor websites for inspiration.

2. Don’t settle on a single title. Keep writing down title ideas as you get them or when inspiration strikes. Start out with a dull title if you feel like you can’t come up with anything at first. For example, if all you can think of at first is something like “Promoting Active Learning in Your Information Literacy Session” (yawwwn!) you can morph that over time to “Revolt Against Boring Instruction Sessions: Create Interdependence in the Instruction Room with Active Learning”. That still needs some work. Just don’t wait till the last minute. And when you keep writing down your title ideas you may have several that, after some mixing and matching, will result in a truly catchy title.

3. Tap into your inner creativity but don’t force it too much. If you are trying to figure out how to work Rocky, revolution and cheesteak into the title of your proposal for the Philly conference then you might be trying too hard. You can actually overdo this catchy title thing. My suggestion is to run your ideas past a few colleagues to see if you might be going overboard. With some practice you will get it right.

Coming up with a catchier title, one that avoids the predictable, boring and cliched, may give you an edge. Just remember that winning proposals also have substance behind the sizzle the title promises. Getting the reviewer’s attention is just the first step. Then you’ve got to deliver the goods and sell the decision makers on your great idea for a program. The title is only the front door. You want the reviewer to step through it and spend some time with your proposal. I came up with three ideas for developing catchy (or avoiding bad) titles. How about sharing some of your tips.

7 thoughts on “Titles Do Make A Difference”

  1. Found your post by way of David Silver’s blog. I share your views. A colleague once told me he decided to attend my presentation because he was intrigued by the title. And having just returned from a research workshop, where I listened to some presentations, I think an interesting title (different from gimmicky) adds to the listener’s understanding. Like how a piece of poem makes more sense when you review the title afterwards. At least that’s how I view it. And you’re right to say the presenter has to “deliver the goods”. The possible downside of a catchy title, without accompanying substance, is to raise the reader’s expectations and then not meet it.

  2. I agree that a boring title can be the kiss of death to attendance and probably to acceptance, but a title that is too “cute” can be incredibly off-putting. As one who has both successfully and unsuccessfully proposed ACRL presentations, I can’t fully endorse the suggestion to use the conference metaphors/location in the title. Perhaps it’s because I’m not crazy about cheesesteak, but trying to work in the local cuisine strikes me as stretching, although I think I’d feel the same way about a food I loved. On the other hand, brainstorming really bad titles with your co-presenters based on the conference metaphors can help you discover the middle ground between boring and too cute. Really–and it takes some of the tension out of the proposal process.

    For the record, Steven didn’t refer to any of my presentation titles in his examples.

  3. By the same token though, a catchy title can put someone off a presentation even if it is genuinely clever. You can be catchy, but make sure there’s something informative in the title too. I would hope that the “If fish markets can do it then so can we” title had a subtitle of some sort so that I could actually have an idea of if I even want to spend the time to track down the description, let alone attend, especially for those who don’t know the fish market relationship you’re trying to make.

  4. thanks for the posting. i have submitted to ACRL several times and never gotten in. it is VERY frustrating. i have indeed spent quality time thinking about the title as well as everything else. what is frustrating is to go to all that work and then get the standard letter ‘we get so many submissions’ [but we didn’t choose yours]. i wish we could get real feedback; e.g. was there just general disinterest, was mine just like 20 others? what? they should be able to give us an opportunity to get a little bit more feedback even if it’s a point rating system.

  5. I admire your persistence Marsha, and hope you will keep trying. You’ve made a good suggestion though I would not anticipate ACRL wanting to add to the burden of being a conference proposal reviewer by then asking those folks to give feedback in some sort of forum. It would also require ACRL to give individual responses rather than that mass rejection email many of us are all too familiar with. I know what you mean about the point rating system. I’ve seen that with grant proposals (although you have to specifically request to see your point total and reviewer comments). But perhaps there is some way to have reviewers complete a single sheet on which general comments could be offered. Perhaps ACRL will consider this in the future – or you could make the suggestion to them. If you’ve been consistently rejected for paper submissions, how about trying to put together a panel session or think about doing a poster session (I did one in 2009 and enjoyed the experience). Just getting accepted for something is a good way to break the ice, and may help you with future proposals. Keep trying and good luck for 2011.

  6. First – The disclaimer that I am speaking as myself only here and not ACRL Vice-President. Second – I’ve said this for many years, in conference planning meetings and on my ACRL conference evaluation forms. Third – To get to the point … what I really wish is that we’d cut the length of the time people have to present so we could have more people giving presentations. I’m not advocating for an entire conference in pecha kucha form but if anything the CyberZed Shed has taught is is that short presentations can still be very meaningful. Let’s up the number of papers/session and also let people propose a “panel” in the more traditional academic conference meaning – a set of individual papers grouped around a theme. A plus side I see is that with less time, most presenters should dispense with the “where is my institution and what is its history, demographics, etc.” – with rare exception that is completely irrelevant.

  7. Great ideas and tips – thanks heaps!

    I found that the more I tried, the more creative and relevent my title’s became. Understanding what the overall message is about, helped me to know what type of title I wanted too.
    I also found it helpful to do a search on news sites to read stories so that I could get an idea of how to relate the title to local community issues (like the Assessment Seattle examples above).

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