Use headings in a report, memo, or website to highlight major sections and to provide the reader with cues to your main points. Headings help the reader scan a document, discern its overall structure, and locate information more quickly. See more below:
Make sure that your headings and subheadings are descriptive headings, or “talking heads,” that provide the reader with detailed information. Avoid using “generic headings.” (The one important exception to this principle is your résumé. For that document, conventional headings – Education, Work Experience, Awards and Honors, etc. – are appropriate, and expected.) Generic headings – likes the ones in the example below, from a progress report – do not provide informational content. These headings could come from practically any progress report.
|GENERIC HEADINGS Work Accomplished
Phase 3Work Remaining
Although the headings above are helpful for dividing chunks of information and establishing levels of hierarchy, they do not provide a clear informational message for the reader. Compare the generic headings above with the “talking heads” below.
|TALKING HEADS Work Accomplished
Test 1: Clamping Aluminum Molds
Test 2: Bolting Steel MoldsWork Remaining
Test 3: Steel Mold Design
Your headings should communicate a clear message. Take a look at the three headings below, the main headings for a strategic business plan aimed at attracting new businesses to an economically struggling region:
|UNCLEAR HEADINGS How to Attract New Business to the Cleveland Area
• Tax Incentives
• Real Estate
It is easy to see how “Tax Incentives” could be attractive to a client, but what message does “Real Estate” convey? and what does “Conference” mean? These headings identify topics but do not convey a strong or clear message. The revision below adds action verbs and more detail to clarify how the three topics could attract clients.
|CLEARER HEADINGS How to Attract New Business to the Cleveland Area
• Create New Tax Incentives
• Help Clients Locate Inexpensive Commercial Real Estate
• Sponsor Conference to Promote Business Partnerships
Headings should talk, but they should not ramble for too long. To have impact, headings need to be concise. The example below – a slide from a PowerPoint presentation – presents a clear message. But the bullet points for the slide are too long to work effectively as the headings for a written report. How could you edit these headings to make them talking heads, and yet to make them more concise for use in a written report?
|CLEAR HEADINGS, BUT TOO LONGA Strategic Plan for Attracting New Business
• Establish the Charlotte area as a “biotech hub” in the Southeastern United States
• Foster cooperation among local biotech businesses by sponsoring a conference
• Attract new biotech businesses to the region by providing tax incentives and consulting help to locate inexpensive commercial real estate
Another issue to think about: Capitalization and punctuation for headings. Are you going to use title case or sentence case for your headings? (Title case means that you capitalize every major word in a heading, as you would for a book title. Sentence case means that you capitalize only the first word, as you would in writing a sentence.) Whatever stylistic convention you use for your headings, make sure that you follow that style consistently. The set of headings below shows an example of three types of stylistic inconsistency: capitalization, punctuation, and parallelism. Edit the headings to make them parallel and stylistically consistent.
|INCONSISTENT HEADING STYLE Phase 1 — Promoting the initiative
Phase 2 — The Conference
Phase 3 — following up with interested companies
The table below provides additional examples of effective and ineffective headings.
|Generic Heading||Topical Heading||“Talking Head”|
|Advantages / Disadvantages||Provides little or no information (poor).||Provides more information but does not convey message (better but not ideal).||Identifies role in report AND provides detailed information AND indicates point of view or conclusion (best option). Can sometimes be too long/|
|Example 1||Problem||Problem: Current Scheduling Practices||Problem: Current Scheduling Procedures Are Time Consuming and Costly|
• Option 1
• Option 2
• Option 3
|Findings: Analysis of Software Packages
• Microsoft Money
• Peachtree Accounting
|Example 3||Recommendation||Recommendation: QuickBooks|
|Example 4||Work Accomplished||Work Accomplished: Test #1, Boric Acid Wash (Unsuccessful)|
The Stand Alone Test. To see if your report’s headings are effective, ask a reader to scan just the headings, without reading the report. Can this reader understand the main argument, findings, and/or conclusion of the report from the headings alone? If so, then your headings are “talking well”—working well to cue the reader.