My last post explained how effective headlines hook in the reader with the promise of a juicy benefit. Once you’ve grasped this key principle, noticed how it works in practice and begun to apply it to your own writing, there are a few straightforward techniques you can weave in to really ramp up the pulling power of your headlines.
We’ll begin with the 2 essential rules that will help ensure the success of every headline you write. I’ll then go on to outline 5 tips you can use quickly and easily (where space, style and relevancy allow) to make your headlines even better at drawing prospective readers into your content.
2 rules for the success of every headline
1. Write your headline first
As a writer, you’ve probably taken the decision at least once in your career to write your title or headline last. It seems logical – the act of writing can help you generate ideas and even hit upon a focus for your piece.
This makes a lot of sense for more literary works, but if you’re in the business of plucking people’s attention out of nowhere, writing your headline first gives you a big advantage.
When you write your headline before the rest of your text, you’ve got carte blanche to pinpoint the most attractive benefit for your audience you can possibly think of. Having chosen a benefit that really appeals, you can then structure your entire article around it. Keeping the promise of your headline as a sharp focus when you’re writing is the best way to make sure your article delivers.
By writing the headline first, you should end up with a better headline and a text that’s more effective in giving people what they want.
2. Make sure your promise is credible
For a headline to work, your potential reader must believe in the promise it makes. Time is a truly precious commodity (no one ever has enough), which makes the time it takes to read an article a real investment. What you don’t want to do is allow any doubts to crop up about whether the investment people make in your text will be worthwhile.
- Don’t be tempted to exaggerate or make outrageous claims. Truth isn’t only a virtue, it’s what people want and need. They’ll shy away from anything that doesn’t sound genuine, and therefore genuinely useful.
- Be specific. The more specific you are, the more credible the headline becomes. Precise details indicate that you’ve got real substance behind the title. Looking back to the four model headlines from my last post, that’s one reason why ‘3 easy ways to organise your workspace and get more done’ is more compelling than, say, ‘3 easy ways to be organised at work’. (The first version is also more explicit about the benefit.)
Sometimes you’ll want to reign your headlines in a bit by adding words that make them a little more tentative. This is why, in model headline no. 1 (‘Why some people almost always achieve their New Year’s resolutions’), the word ‘almost’ is a vital one.
Ever met a human being who always achieves what they set out to do? Nope – and your audience won’t have either.
5 top tips for tweaking your headline to perfection
Here are 5 tips which are simple to apply and can instantly give your headlines extra oomph. For reasons of style, subtlety and brevity, you probably won’t always want to employ all of them. But you’ll often find that adding one or two of them gives your headline just the kick it needs.
1. Highlight easy solutions
We’re all time-pressured, so quick-fixes are invaluable. ‘3 easy ways to organise your workspace…’ makes for a more tempting offer than simply saying ‘3 ways’. Low-cost or free answers are also a big draw, so if you’ve got a solution that’s easy on the brain, body or wallet then go ahead and state that fact in the title.
2. Focus on newsworthiness/scarcity
Little-known information is more valuable to us because it’s likely to be telling us something we don’t already know. If you’ve got something new to say, then try to use your title to emphasise this. Phrases like ‘the secret of…’, and words such as ‘introducing’, ‘discover’, ‘new’ and ‘news’ work a treat.
3. Promise to reveal something the reader didn’t already know about themselves
You can do this with a leading question, e.g. ‘Are you selling your services short?’; ’Are you making make this mistake with [an important activity]?’ People love to focus on themselves – it’s human nature. Useful (or entertaining) revelations on the subject of ‘you’ and ‘your’ are bound to attract attention.
(Take care with question headlines – remember that a question with a clear and obvious ‘no’ answer could make your article sound irrelevant and actually turn people off.)
4. Use a list format
Lists work because, in the words of Copyblogger founder Brian Clark, they give a ‘nice, quantifiable return on attention invested’ (see ‘7 Reasons Why List Posts Will Always Work’). Because they’re specific about how many ‘hints’, ‘tips’ or ‘ways’ they’ll provide with, you start to get a sense either of how quickly you might be able to digest the information (small-number lists), or how much valuable material you could get out of them (large-number lists). Plus stating a quantity indicates that you’ve got some real substance behind your headline.
Use digits rather than words in your list, and try to put them at the beginning of the sentence, where they’ll have more impact.
5. Include attention-grabbing words
Some words simply have more attention-grabbing power than others. We’ve already touched on ‘you’, ‘secret’ and ‘new’, but here are some others that can help your headlines stand out:
As long as they’re relevant, and including them doesn’t cause you to say something that’s untrue, using these words is an easy way to give your headlines more punch.
Now to announce your headline-writing skills to the world…
That’s just about a wrap for my two-part headline masterclass. But your headline apprenticeship has only just begun.
Now that you understand how to construct, frame and tweak a headline for maximum impact, it’s time to go forth and write some.
Seek out tried-and-tested headline formulas to give you ideas for structure (just type ‘headline formulas’ into Google and see what comes up). And remember to keep your eyes peeled for headlines that are pulling in crowds in practice.
Write them down. Analyse their structure. Identify the reader benefits. Ask yourself what makes them compelling – and how they could be improved. Then apply this insight to your own headline-writing.
I bet you’ll improve out of sight.
What have you learned from observing and analysing real-life headlines? Please share your top tips with us in the comments.
I can’t remember where I first read the phrase ‘drowning in information; thirsting for knowledge’. But it has stuck with me ever since.
It sums up a predicament that just about anyone with a device hooked up to the Internet will relate to. Those of you with memories stretching back to the late 80s will remember Johnny Five and his incessant cry for ‘input!’ We’re all a bit like that. Each of us is on a never-ending quest for knowledge, ranging from mundane, nuts-and-bolts information (how do I set up a Facebook business page?) to guidance on reaching fulfilment (how do I attract my ideal partner? How can I carve out a meaningful career?) Life can be tricky, perplexing, exhausting, and yet – apparently – there are people out there with the wisdom to improve it.
Unfortunately, ‘out there’ on the Web these days is bedlam. Twitter alone sees about 500 million posts every day, which translates into a average of 5,700 tweets every second. With so much ‘information’ being broadcast, how do you decide what you’re going to focus on – whether a piece of content might actually be worth clicking through to read? And on the flip side, how do you make sure that other people click through to read the messages you put out?
What is it that makes you, me, or anyone choose to read a particular piece of content?
One thing’s for sure: even 24-carat-gold wisdom won’t get much attention these days if it doesn’t have an irresistible headline.
The one simple principle all headline-writers must grasp
In your bid to get your content read, the headline is your greatest ally. It’s bigger, bolder and punchier than the rest of your text, and (when it’s in a tweet that links through to your blog, for example) it often stands alone. It’s the first sentence of your text to get read, and you need to make sure that it isn’t the last. And that means making it as enticing as possible.
There’s a lot of headline-writing advice on the Web, and much of it revolves around tried-and-tested formulas where you fill in the blanks to suit your purposes. (So you might have, for example, ‘The secret of X in [small number] easy steps’.) These can be a great resource, but they’ll only get you so far if you don’t take the time to grasp how and why they work.
To be a really effective headline-writer, you first need to take this key principle on board:
A great headline always makes a promise – the promise of making us better off than we were before we read the article.
When you’re writing headlines, you must make sure your headline contains a juicy and obvious benefit for the reader. Ask yourself what compelling pay-off your article offers them, and make sure it’s showcased in your title. (This process becomes much easier and more effective if you write your headline first – more on this in the next post.)
To illustrate the point, here’s a quick run down of four potent (and mostly invented*) headlines.
4 model headlines with benefits
1. ‘Why some people almost always achieve their New Year’s resolutions’
New year’s resolutions are bound up with our ‘dream selves’: the people we aspire to be and would be, if only it were easier. Yet most resolutions fall by the wayside within a few months. This headline promises to be a game changer – to reveal the secret of motivation and willpower that could enable you to become that person.
2. ‘3 surprising reasons why vitamin tablets could be harming your health’
You can almost guarantee that people who take extra vitamins will be interested in enhancing their health – it stands to reason. But this headline suggests that in trying to give their bodies a boost, they might unwittingly be doing themselves some damage.
The promise of this headline is to give the reader some new information (as indicated by the word ‘surprising’) that will help them make an informed choice about whether to carry on taking vitamin pills.
3. ‘6 easy ways to organise your workspace and get more done’
Everyone and their dog wants to get more done, but organising takes time, and it can be a drag. But what if it were easy? This headline promises a shortcut to increased productivity – a tempting offer if ever there was one.
4. ‘Is your CV selling you short?’
It’s hard to answer this question with a decisive ‘no’. How can you be sure how your CV is going to come across to others? The writer here might have some insight that just hasn’t occurred to you.
Questions like this, which can’t be answered definitively, can work brilliantly as headlines. If you’re applying for jobs, you won’t want to run the risk that your CV isn’t doing you justice, and this headline promises to reveal ways of improving it that you might have overlooked.
Beware of asking a question that people can confidently answer no to, however. An example could be, ‘Is your CV poorly written?’ Because most people take CV writing very seriously (putting a lot of effort into making sure theirs is up to scratch, and perhaps even enlisting help if they’re not a ‘natural’ writer), they’ll probably be more inclined to answer ‘no’ to this question than to ‘Is your CV selling you short?’ And a ‘no’ answer assumes the article isn’t relevant, and is therefore not worth reading.
(*Although I ‘invented’ these headlines, I later discovered that numbers 1 and 4 are already in use on the Web. Given how effective these techniques and structures are – and the popularity of the topics – it’s not all that surprising.)
The mystery of mysterious headlines, solved
Some headlines work by planting a mystery in the reader’s mind, which can be solved by reading the article. In this case, the headline itself sets up the reader’s ‘problem’, and unearthing the solution becomes the benefit. Consider these headlines:
- ‘I fell 4,000 feet… and survived!’
- ‘How I got my six pack in two months’
- ‘How I cured my asthma with one simple lifestyle change’
All these headlines peak our curiosity, and also hold the promise of satisfying it. The solutions to the mysteries held within these titles could be useful to us (especially if we’re asthmatic or an abs enthusiast), or at least give us a crowd-pleasing anecdote for our next social gathering. If yours is a stand-out story which grew out of unlikely circumstances, then this sort of headline could work wonders for you.
Getting your head around the key principle of writing headlines will give you a solid foundation on which to build your technique. From here, your journey towards headline mastery is a case of taking on a couple more straightforward rules and a smattering of tips, then putting them into practice – over and over!
The practice is down to you, but I’ll be helping you out with the two important guidelines and top tips in my next post.
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