"Life is full of small challenges."

--James Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, The World Is Not Enough


I am indebted to former students for many of the ideas contained on this page.

Captions Take Different Shapes

Talking captions continue to plague the student. Perhaps, if we give more examples and exercises, that will help. Remember that captions, as our textbook author points out, come in many shapes. You may have the following:

Blake and Bly in their materials recommend talking captions as one of the strongest ways to present ideas. You want your reader to be grabbed as the person is scanning the text, whether a memo or a long, formal report. When you write a talking caption, remember the parts:


Let me provide you with a paragraph, and you write the talking caption. The answer can be found later on the answers link. Here's the exercise and the paragraph:

The data from the surveys reflects a pattern of continued car theft and break-ins in the area. Also, 18 of the 25 respondents (72 percent) rated the police presence from one to three (Figure 1) on a scale of one to five where five is the highest. In addition to the low police presence ratings, police presence was mentioned on the comment about possible solutions question by 17 of 25 respondents (68 percent). Police presence can provide a valuable theft deterrent.

Now, write your talking caption for the previous paragraph. Did you express the essence of the paragraph? Did you use an object as well as a subject and verb? Did you avoid verbals, such as "ing's" and "ed's"? Now, check your answer and see how you did. Are talking captions becoming a little easier?

Avoid Confusing Talking Captions

Talking captions represent a refined way of expressing the essence of a paragraph. They should not be confused with captioned headings you see on a television screen, "closed captions." The televised captions usually contain several sentences rather than the one sentence in a talking caption. A talking caption should always avoid the verbal: Listening Options Considered. Immediately, we see the caption includes the verbal, Considered. You can usually spot an incorrect talking caption when "ing" and "ed" words are used. "Considered" modifies listening and has nothing to do with the verb. You could translate the verbal to "considers" and then recast the caption. That might work.

Place Talking Captions Above the Paragraph

Students have begun to ask me where the talking captions are placed. Place the talking caption above the paragraph and underline it. Such an example follows:

Sparky Expresses Housing Concern

The caption acts like a headline. You need it for the assignments in this class, whether you use them at work or not. Headlines sell memo copy. You have to pause to read what the person is presenting. You see the essence of the paragraph from the talking caption. If someone writes "Educational Background," that is not a talking caption. No verb exists; the essence of talking caption writing is verbs. The essence of good business writing is Subject-Verb-Object.

Figure Titles Require Talking Captions

So often when students write captions for charts, they do not realize the significance of having captions that say something. Zelazny in Say It with Charts recommends that charts, especially, carry more impact if they have talking captions as their titles. With this idea in mind, we need to look at some of the do's and don't's of writing talking captions. Suppose the report writer starts a caption about a bar chart this way:

Survey Shows Results

Comments: It is true the caption is a talking caption. It has all the elements of a talking caption: subject, verb, and object. However, the caption does not say anything. What results? The report writer should have written a conclusion as part of the talking caption.

Look at the difference in this next talking caption about customer service:

The report writer has carefully written a conclusion as part of the caption. Also, customer service is now defined. We know as readers that 1996 sales are important to us. The report writer has made the chart caption work.

One more example would probably help. You are studying how the teenagers in your household manage their time. Therefore, in a pie or bar chart you write the following caption:


Comments: We need to clarify what teenagers. Are these neighborhood teenagers? Could we look at the chart and see which part of time management the teenagers do not favor? The report writer has only given us a glimpse of what the chart will reveal. Work on those conclusions.

E-Mail Subjects Are Helped with Talking Captions

You want your e-mail read first before anyone else's. How do you achieve that distinction? You write a talking caption in the subject line. Your mail may be read first by the recipient, because you have pinpointed why your message is important. Let's take some examples:


Comments: For most people, that previous subject would be intelligible. However, the student who received this e-mail wanted to know why his Uniform Resource Locator would not work for a home page. The writer was explaining, even in the subject line, that a missing "dot" before the "html" was causing the problem. The recipient could look immediately at the subject line and see why it was necessary to read the communication.

Verbals Need Distinguishing from Verbs

When you write a talking caption, you must be careful not to use a verbal instead of a verb. A verbal usually means an "ing" or "ed" word that modifies something. Let's take an example of a misplaced verbal:

Data to be Gathered

Think about: Most people would respond that "gathered" is a verb. Look carefully at the phrase. To be gathered modifies the type of data to be gathered. You would need to change the caption to "gathers." Perhaps, we would say: "Report Needs Data Gathering." Now, we have changed gathering into an object and a noun or gerund. Now, some action occurs in the caption.

You probably would like some more examples of how to improve talking captions with the "trapped verbal." I am indebted to current and former students for the next examples:

Questions Regarding Report
Feedback Required for Progress
Questions Drawn by Students' Concerns

Think about: A first reaction to the previous caption is this explanation: "The word, regarding, is a verb. No, it isn't. Regarding is that "trapped verbal." In the second instance, Required modifies feedback as the type of feedback. You would have to change Required to Requires. In the third instance, drawn modifies questions and is further explained by the students' concerns. Now, let's rewrite the captions:

Report Concerns Questions
Progress Requires Feedback
Students' Concerns Create Questions

Are you getting better at understanding talking captions? Does the need for verbs make more sense? Are you finding the "trapped verbal" can be eliminated or changed? To paraphrase one of my students, you need to find someone or something doing the acting.

You are probably saying at this point you are an expert in writing talking captions. Good, let's try some exercises. I will give the poor talking caption, and you need to rewrite to make the caption "talk." Here we go:

Methods of Gathering Data
Feedback Requested on Topic
Problems of Company Takeover
The Effects of Trash-Ridden Streets
Getting Information on Inventory
Difficulties of Outsourced Workers
Deciding the Report Topic
Problem Worth Solving

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Last updated Tuesday, August 27, 2002