by Danielle Styles

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:

Thank you

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.

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