Wednesday, February 8, 2012

O' Caption, My Caption

To use a caption or not to use a caption with a graphic?

That is a question posed to me during the start of many projects—especially proposals.

I highly recommend using captions with your graphics. I am referring to the “title” of your graphic—also called a caption. This article does not address numbering graphics or referencing specific RFP requirements for proposals. (Of course, you want to make it easy for the evaluator to find and link your graphic to an RFP requirement, so why wouldn’t you do this?)

Good captions accomplish two things:
  1. Quickly and clearly share your graphic’s primary message.
  2. Give the reader a reason to care about your graphic.
If your goal is to influence or persuade your audience, your caption should be one sentence long and include a “benefit” and a “how” (often the solution). Place the “benefit” before the “how” to give the reader a reason to care about your solution. Whenever possible, include quantitative data to further validate your assertions. Professionals in almost every industry have a visceral, gut reaction to quantitative data, because what is measured is improved. Measuring or quantification tells the reader that your solution is tested, process-driven, repeatable, and lowers risk. The following is an example of a good caption.

If your goal is to clarify or explain (persuasion is not needed), your caption should summarize the content of your graphic. For example, “Company X’s organization.” Marketing materials (including proposals) are intended to influence, motivate, and persuade, and I always include a benefit: “To ensure an easy transition, Company X’s organization includes key personnel with 20 years of iFind software experience.”

To be successful, your graphic must be consistent with your caption. To confirm that your graphic is synonymous with your caption, remove the caption and ask others what conclusion they reach after reviewing the visual. If it is similar to your written caption, you have a successful caption. If not, modify your graphic or rewrite your caption based on your goal.

Sadly, most graphics do not communicate what the caption states. The solution is to write your caption first and then create the graphic based on the idea stated in your caption.

I use slightly different approaches for graphics in printed materials versus shown in a presentation:

Written Proposals
  1. Placement: Captions are shown beneath your graphic. It is the accepted convention and therefore expected. Your goal is to make it easy for the reader/evaluator to find what they are looking for.
  2. Style: The style should be different than the body text, so the reader knows it is associated with the graphic and not the surrounding body text. (You can certainly get away with a different color or size if it follows your template and/or RFP requirements.)
  3. Government vs. Commercial: The approach I recommend for Government proposals is not the approach I recommend for commercial props. Government proposals tend to require condensed line spacing (leading—the space between lines of text) whereas commercial proposals include more white space and can be a smaller point size.

Oral Proposals
  1. Placement: The caption should consistently appear at the bottom of your slides. Think of it as you “take away.” It is the final word or conclusion of the slide.
  2. Style: The caption is large enough and distinct enough to be readable and consistently recognized as the “take away.” I place my captions in stylized boxes no smaller than 14-point type (usually 20 point).
  3. Government vs. Commercial: For commercial proposals that do not have strict RFP stipulated outlines, I use an edited, shorter version of the caption as the title. I do so because the purpose of a good slide title is to make the audience care about the content of the slide. For Government proposals, place the caption at the bottom of the slide (see rule #1).
Follow these rules and match your caption to your graphic to ensure clear, concise, compelling communication and watch your success rate rise.

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