Toastmaster — September 2012
Change Language:
Howard Scott


Why you should name your speech with care.

What’s in a name? Plenty,
if it is the title of a speech. If speakers took more care in crafting their speech titles, they would deliver better talks.

First, a good title creates anticipation. For example, let’s say these three speeches were on the club meeting agenda: “My Mailman Career,” “Russian Kettle Bells” and “The Tax That Will Be the Death of Me.” Which title is exciting and piques your interest? You’re more likely to be curious about the third one, despite its subject matter. What kind of tax is it? How does it kill? The third title suggests there will be drama. It is an active statement, and it revs up the listener for what’s to come.

“A title sets up the emotional barometer of the audience,” says Andrew Staicer, CC, ALB, of Palomar Airport Toastmasters in Carlsbad, California. “From this, you go full circle to bring the listener back to the original feeling.”

Croix Sather, CC, CL, a member of two Toastmasters clubs in Connecticut, puts it differently: “A good title should make your audience say, ‘Hey, I need to hear that!’”

Second, a clever title tells what’s ahead — to better prepare the audience to receive the talk. Like a book’s table of contents, a strong name will guide a speaker’s audience to a more comprehensible understanding. “A clever name answers ‘W-I-I-F-M’ (what’s in it for me) to get the individual’s attention,” Sather explains. It answers the question: Why should I listen to this speech? Unanticipated pauses, forgotten lines, mispronunciations and even a few “ums” and “ahs” are often overlooked because listeners want to hear the content.

Finally, a good title shows enthusiasm. It says “I care enough about this topic to come up with a memorable handle.” In later discussions, a catchy title will be on everyone’s lips. But an interesting title does more than help the audience. It helps the speaker during the creative process. That’s another reason the tag should never be an afterthought. Start with the title. It might not be the same one you wind up with, but the working solution will guide you in preparing the presentation.

The process of conceiving the name can also determine your focus. For instance, your subject might be the use of atomic bombs during World War II. You could handle the topic in many ways. You could discuss the causes, examine the politics or consider the morality of the issue. But the title “Japan’s Take on Little Boy and Fat Man” forces you to examine the topic from Japan’s perception of blame or blamelessness. You’ll carve out a more interesting talk with a narrowed focus. Bill Malthouse, DTM, of the Traveling TasteMasters club in Virginia, Maryland, adds, “A good title tends to focus your speech development, helping you keep on track.”

An apt name will set the tone. Compare “My Disastrous Life-Modeling Experience” with “My Brilliant Life- Drawing Modeling Career.” The first sets the stage for embarrassment. The second provides an insight into the model who rose to the challenge of posing for practicing artists.

A perfect designation forces you to take a position. One thing you don’t want to be is “wishy washy.” You want to take a stand. Almost subconsciously, your title will warp into your voice and your tone, and also into your emphasis, even in a reportorial piece. In a talk about Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a best-selling book about child rearing, the title “Should We Shoot the Tiger Mother?” takes a much different approach than “Amy Chua, Mother of the Year.”

Malthouse offers a caveat: “A good title should not allow the audience to pre-classify the speech, but should not misdirect them either.” In other words, don’t use a title that is so literal and dry that the audience can anticipate your speech in advance. And on the flip side, avoid too much creativity, or else the audience won’t know what your topic is.

Also consider the topic. What is the subject matter, what are you trying to say and how do you want to say it? Are you after humor, pathos, admiration or education? For example, if it’s about your beekeeping hobby, try out several titles and see how each one informs the audience: “A Beekeeper’s Season,” “The Bumbling Beekeeper Finally Sees Gold,” “Keeping Bees Is Not as Easy as You Think,” and “To Bee-Keep or Not to Bee-Keep.” Each choice offers subtle variations in approach. Choose the one with the tone that appeals most to you.

Alexandra Watkins, ALB, a member of San Francisco Toastmasters, is founder and chief innovation officer of the naming and branding company Eat My Words. She says, “You have to catch someone’s interest with something unexpected, irresistible, fun or colorful — or with a clever twist on a familiar word or phrase.” She gives two examples on the subject of photography: “How to Shoot People” and “Confessions of a Sharp Shooter.”

Make your title active. Instead of “My Investing Strategy,” try “Investing by Instinct.” Make the title descriptive. “The Pre-Marital Pregnancy Problem” title could be improved: “How the Unwed Mother Affects Your Tax Dollar.” Make the title concrete. A better title than “My House” is “My Stone-Walled, Bamboo- Framed Dream House.” Make your title catchy. A better suggestion for the title “Why Drivers Shouldn’t Stop for Joggers” is “Don’t Stop for Me.” Try for humor. Change “Too Much Technology” to “The Internet Is Making Us Stupid.” Occasionally reach out for alliteration. Instead of “Buying Baby Furniture at Superstores,” try “Buying Bouncy Baby Buggies.”

Movie references sometimes produce effective titles. An improvement to “My Life as a Housekeeper” is “Ironing Lady,” which obviously is a reference to the movie The Iron Lady. Instead of the topic “How We Age,” how about “Everything Goes,” a reference to that Broadway hit Anything Goes. Something in the news might work as well. Try scanning the newspaper for inspiration.

Avoid clichés. “The 12 Points of Light in Stock Picking,” “The Keys to a Happy Marriage” and “Losing 20 Pounds through Willpower” are all overdone. Keep searching for something fresh and original, even offbeat.

Andrew Staicer has a habit of walking around with a small pad and writing down interesting possibilities. He says, “I often come up with an inspiration when I am doing something else.”

Good titles are like good grooming habits. Just as people look at you differently when you are well-groomed, people listen more intently when your words are preceded by an intriguing title.

Of course, a good title is imperative in a speech contest because, unlike during regular Toastmasters club meetings, there is no introduction.