by Danielle Styles

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.

What’s next?

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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