September 3, 2021
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The Winning Title

A few Friday Briefings ago I made a ghastly mistake. I opened with a bad title, and it cost dearly.

The title of the August 20, 2021 edition was A Shapeless Peg in an Undefined Hole. The article, if I may be immodest, had quite an important message, and many who read it commented on its usefulness. But readership suffered significantly. For the first time in about three years, numbers fell below 40%. That served me right, because it was an awful title.

I suppose I had spent so much time creating the article itself that I gave the title short shrift, which of course is the opposite of what you should do. The more important your message, the more time and care you need to take crafting the title.

Think of your title as a road sign on a busy expressway. Its job, in two seconds or less, is to deliver a behaviour-changing message to drivers who are also fully focused on traffic flow, lane changes, their dashboards, brake lights ahead, road conditions, kids fighting in the back seat, and a talk show on the radio.

Your title is just like that-- a short, to-the-point message intended to provoke a specific response. In the case of your missive, the desired response is to get the recipient to become an an attentive reader, right now.

Titles aren’t just for books, articles, and essays. The subject line in your e-mail is a title, as is the subject line of your business letter. More obviously, proposals, case notes, summaries, reports, and scholarly works have titles, whose job it is to lure the reader eagerly into the prose.

Some, like legal pleadings, are formulaic, but even then attention should be paid to accuracy and format, and whatever wiggle room you may have for creativity. At the very least, think about font and placement-- a smart looking format signals that you care about what you are going to say.

Almost invariably, short is better than long, simple is better than complex. If you bore or confuse the reader at the outset, good luck with making your point and getting engagement.

A good title is not only short, it’s also intriguing. It suggests a good story, a mental challenge, an entertainment, or an emotional impact. It makes the reader want to respond and engage. Ideally, the reader will look at the title and say, “Oh, now that looks interesting!”

There are also some “nevers” attached to writing titles, and the first one is to avoid certain kinds of words. Pompous words or those which might call for a dictionary are to be avoided-- nobody is going to read your paper if the title says you're full of yourself.

If it looks like bait on the hook, don't be surprised if nobody bites. Even fish know better.

Clearly, words which evoke negative emotions are to be used with great care. Few of us look forward to an opportunity to feel miserable.

There are also words which just feel, well, icky, like a rainy November day. And that’s exactly where I made my mistake: “shapeless” and “undefined” are icky words. They are just, well, shapeless and undefined. A glum state of affairs. Nothing attractive there. Bad choice.

One last thing about titles, particularly in cases where your piece will be one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, which will come before the bored and exhausted eyes of the reader (proposals, job applications, academic examinations, and the like). Your job here is to get the reader to perk up, to see yours as a refreshing bit of colour in a sea of bland.

If you want the reader to prefer yours over all the others, the title is your best chance. My law school paper, which was entered for and won the Canada-wide Lieff Prize, was entitled, Winding Up the Family-- Some Tax Implications. Reviewers told me that it got off on the right foot because they were intrigued by the use of business law language applied to family law issues. Sure, it was a decent paper, but I'm also sure there were academically better papers which sank to the bottom of the pile because of boring titles.

So, if one of your titles turns out to be a dud, as did mine of August 20, take that as a lesson to review your best practices and vow to sharpen your title-writing skills!

Forward to a friend!

Can I help you or your organization? Contact me at or at 613-862-3489. 

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September 3 is a special day in our family. Happy Birthday, Trinden!
We take it for granted we know the whole story - we judge a book by its cover and read what we want between selected lines.

Axl Rose

What I Do

I am an explainer, that is, I deconstruct complex concepts and re-tell them in a fashion that can be understood.

In particular, I explain the secrets of professional success. These are things I wish I had known as a beginner lawyer in 1981, but which I had to learn by trial and error (and the occasional epiphany). These things are still not taught in law school or the Bar Admission Course, and generally not taught in any other professional training.

These secrets are simple yet profound, and are really just specific applications of common-sense life lessons. They are the keys to true professional satisfaction and financial success.

Call me at 613-862-3489 or e-mail me at

© Norman Bowley 2021, all rights reserved.
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