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An Empathic Approach to Bottom-Lining Your Ideas

"What should the title be?"

Key points

  • Coming up with just the right title for your project is famously difficult.
  • When it comes to picking a title, a key point to always keep in mind pertains to truly knowing your audience.
  • It is often useful to have multiple versions of a project's title so as to be able to resonate with different audiences.
Source: geralt/Pixabay
Source: geralt/Pixabay

So imagine this: You are a college student and you are required, for one of your courses, to participate in a departmental research study. You go online to see the options and you see that there are two studies available.

On this website, designed for students to sign up for research studies, the titles of the two studies are as follows:

Title A: The Interpersonal Factors That Relate to Social Coalitions: A Multi-Factorial Approach to Understanding Social-Emotional Relationships.

Title B: How Do People Choose Their Friends?

Remember, you only need to participate in one study. And according to the website, each of these studies takes approximately 25 minutes to complete.

Not sure about you, but I'd be much more likely to choose the study with Title B—How Do People Choose Their Friends? It just seems more interesting and accessible, right?

So now let's change perspectives: You're an established Ph.D. in the behavioral sciences and you have recently been appointed the role of editor-in-chief of a major international academic journal. Your journal receives about 500 submissions for consideration each year, yet you can only publish 50 articles a year. Thus, your journal necessarily has a 90% rejection rate.

As editor, you often need to weed out papers that are being proposed for articles very efficiently. You have even sometimes taken to making quick decisions based on the professionalism of the paper's title.

On your desk one day, you receive two manuscripts that you are being asked to consider for publication. Their titles are, you guessed it, as follows:

Title A: The Interpersonal Factors That Relate to Social Coalitions: A Multi-Factorial Approach to Understanding Social-Emotional Relationships.

Title B: How Do People Choose Their Friends?

It's a different situation from the prior one, isn't it? While that second title seemed kind of snazzy to draw the attention of 19-year-olds who are looking for a fun study to participate in, that first title is much more scientific and detailed. All things equal, if I were the editor in this case and could only consider one of these papers based simply on the title alone, I could imagine being biased toward Title A.

Every Project Has Multiple Versions of the Title

A quick bottom line of the above-described thought experiment is this: Pretty much every project (across all fields, by the way) has different titles that are geared for different audiences. If you look at the above titles, for instance, it might very well be the case that these two very-different titles correspond to the exact same study.

When I am working with students on research projects, I always find that getting them to understand the issue of creating titles that best connect with various particular audiences is a critical communication skill.

To really unpack this idea, let's elaborate on the example presented at the top of this piece. Imagine that you are conducting a study that focuses on how various emotional factors relate to how people choose friends and other coalitional allies. As is true with all studies, this work is likely going to be presented to various audiences in a broad array of contexts. For instance, you will need a title for how the study will be presented to your campus's local ethics board. You will also need a title that will be presented to potential participants. Further, you might need a title that corresponds to a presentation on this work that you will give as part of an academic research symposium. Maybe you will try to publish this work in an academic journal. Perhaps you will try to publish this work as a chapter in an edited academic book. Maybe you will try to write a popular book on this work. Perhaps you will even venture to write a Psychology Today post on the work! And then, of course, there is the informal name of the study that you and your research collaborators use for the work while in the throes of data collection.

Importantly, each of these venues has its own unique function and corresponding unique audience.

Just as an exposition of how to think about this issue in practice, below are example titles for this project that might be appropriate for the different venues presented above.

Ethics Board Title: A Scientific Study of the Psychology of Friendships

Title for Potential Participants: How Do People Choose Their Friends?

Title for Research Symposium, Academic Journal Article, or Chapter in an Academic Book: The Interpersonal Factors That Relate to Social Coalitions: A Multi-Factorial Approach to Understanding Social-Emotional Relationships.

Popular Book Title: How to Make Friends!

Psychology Today Post: How Do People Really Make Friends?

Informal Name of Study Among Study Team Members: The Friend Study

As you can see, the "right" title is highly dependent on both context and audience.

Bottom Line

Nailing the title of your work matters for various reasons. Primarily, getting the title pitched right for a particular audience and context allows you to get people's attention and allows you to best communicate your ideas. No college student wants to be in a boring old study with the term "Multi-Factorial Approach" in the title just as no editor of a serious scientific journal wants to bother considering a paper titled "The Friend Study" for publication in the journal's highly competitive pages. The ability to develop and utilize appropriately pitched titles across audiences will help anyone better communicate their ideas to others.