Keep captions short

How to sell crisp cutlines to clients who want to include too much

“Help us with captions,” wrote Sue Grabowski, president of Grabowski & Co., in our recent member survey. “Our clients luuuuvvvvv to include long names, titles, etc. How can we make the caption shorter but keep the clients happy?”

Keep captions short

Small packages Use your captions to communicate a key message. Image by Tamara Bellis

Sue, I’d start by reminding clients that the real opportunity with a caption is to communicate a key message, not to identify who’s in the picture. Larding your captions up with titles doesn’t help you get the message across.

Also, people read captions because they’re short. If your captions start looking like paragraphs, people will stop reading.

Create a style guide.

I’d create a style guide for each client, limiting the length of captions. I’d think 14 to 21 words — a couple of lines if they’re showing up in print.

If possible, identify people through context: “Kyle Busch, celebrating a win at Chicagoland Speedway, often is booed because of his aggressive approach” is one example from USA Today.

If that doesn’t work, use more generic descriptors like “sales executive” or “board member.”

And steal this tip from The American Geriatrics Society: Write captions at the second-grade reading level. That way, even if the text is written at a higher level, everyone can understand the captions.

Learn more.

You can learn more about captions on

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    Reach nonreaders with display copy

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Source: Peter S. Houts, Cecilia C. Doak, Leonard G. Doak,  Matthew J. Loscalzo, “The Role of Pictures in Improving Health Communication: A Review of Research on Attention, Comprehension, Recall, and Adherence” (PDF), Patient Education and Counseling, vol. 61, 2006, p.173-190.

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