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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 1998
Creating Titles for Presentations:
Beyond the Colon

Mitchell M. Handelsman, University of Colorado at Denver
Joseph J. Palladino, University of Southern Indiana

Many of you are preparing to present the fruits of your research for the first time. Hundreds of hours of effort have finally yielded some data, which you type into a PC hoping SPSS will provide the results you have envisioned since the idea first thrust its way into your consciousness: "Ah, significance!"

Many important decisions must be made as you lead up to that all-important poster, or, for the sturdy of heart, paper presentation. Not the least of these decisions is the title for the presentation. We know there are guidelines in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, and regional associations typically limit the number of words in titles to 10. (We've discovered that this is NOT a space issue as traditionally believed, but an attention span issue.) Nevertheless, there have really been no useful guidelines for titles. Until now!

When the program for an upcoming regional convention hits your mailbox, do you eagerly flip through the pages searching for a title that screams, "Come hear this paper?" Are you routinely disappointed to find the same old boring titles that have been regurgitated out of the same title-generating machine used by Ebbinghaus? Are you tired of titles that take the form of:

The Effects of ______ and ______ on ______ and ______

Here's an example of that long-standing trend:

The Effects of Humorlessness and Pomposity on the Number of Participants and Their Likelihood of Entering Stage 4 Sleep.

What if we recommended that you ignore all the existing guidelines and instead exercise your freedom to write really interesting presentation titles? We can hear naysayers, traditionalists, and the humor impaired individuals (see our column in the Spring 1996 Psi Chi Newsletter) yelling, "The result would be chaos! You cannot do this!" But suppose it were possible to use creativity in writing titles. Moreover, suppose you could have a free hand in writing abstracts. No more stilted, rigid, humorless titles and abstracts. You might actually be able to say what you wanted in your own words.

Our first guideline is this: Use a colon. The research attests to its benefits. For example (and this is a real paper!), Dillon (1981) found that a colon was used in 72% of article titles, and was associated with publishability, productivity, complexity of thought, distinction of endeavor, and progress of the enterprise. Wow, all that from a colon!

One clear advantage of using colons in titles is such titles tend to be longer. This leads to longer resumes and the appearance of a much more productive career. So we encourage you to use the colon as often as possible. (Just look at the titles of our columns!) We look forward to hearing presentations with titles such as, "A Longitudinal Analysis of the Colon: It's Not Just Two Periods," and "Hair: Does It Matter Where?"

This last title leads to our second bit of advice: Try to put your titles in the form of a question. (This is known as the Trebek Principle.) Surely you have seen titles in the form of a question such as, "Does Psychosurgery Influence the Course of Humor Impaired Personality Disorder?" Questions seem to heighten interest. Another benefit of question titles is that the abstract becomes much easier to write. Consider the following hypothetical article title (which includes both the question and the colon) and abstract:

TITLE: Pets and Pathology: Do Cats Reduce Reported
Symptoms Among Institutionalized Psychiatric Patients?


Notice that this title uses just a small amount of alliteration. Be careful about alliteration. Too much can be a bad thing. Consider the following study of cognitive deficits among clinical groups: "Processing Problems Pertaining Primarily to Passionately Pro-Social Paranoid Personalities in Post-Industrial Pennsylvania." Not only does such a title become boring, but you often have to clean yourself up after you say it out loud.

We believe titles should convey the substance of the presentation more directly than has been the case in the past. Suppose John Watson and Rosalie Rayner had an iota of creativity. Perhaps the title of their famous research would have been, "Terrifying Children and Ethics Committees: Raising the Bar a Few Decibels." Pavlov might have had a career in marketing if he had just exhibited a little creativity. Here's a title that might have meant big bucks, "Toning and Tuning: How to Control the Behavior of Others."

We also believe that titles can be engaging without demeaning the long intellectual tradition of our field. Titles (of actual papers) such as, "Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Goalbox" and "In Search of the Abominable Consent Form," can convey information and keep people awake at the same time.

OK, let's review our proposal. We are suggesting that we continue the well-established tendency to insert colons in the titles of presentations. The tendency to write uninteresting, uninviting titles is well entrenched; but, we are optimists! Using questions can help. But we suggest that from now on presentation titles should be evaluated on two additional criteria:

(a) Do they contain a modicum of creativity?
(b) Do they contain even microscopic traces of humor?

Should our new guidelines be accepted, we predict the number of people attending sessions will increase, the number of people sleeping through sessions will decrease, world peace will break out, the stock market will hit 10,000, and an independent prosecutor will be appointed to investigate this departure from tradition. These outcomes will be described in a session titled, "On the Possibility of Injecting Humor and Creativity Into Session Titles: Estimating the Probability of Very Low Frequency Events." And here's our entire abstract: Yeah, right!

Dillon, J. T. (1981). The Emergence of the Colon: An Empirical Correlate of Scholarship. American Psychologist, 36, 879-884.



Copyright 1998 (Volume 2, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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