Good headlines and why this one is rubbish
This is the first of a series of posts where we will look at how everything you write can gain an increased return on investment (of time and/or money) when you improve certain elements of the copy.
We will cover the headline, the call to action, and everything in between.
So in the words of ski jumpers everywhere, lets start at the top.
An Alternate Starting?
Originally the title of this blog post was:
Read this post now! (to find out why this headline is so rubbish.)
It would have been nice to do something a bit unusual. It’s just that this one would have had a lot of people skipping over it, saying to themselves “I’m not being told what to do by a flipping blog post.”
However, ‘read this now’ is exactly what every headline should make the reader do, even if we would try to avoid screaming it in their faces. We save this type of approach for writing a call to action. Remember that term, we’ll be talking more about this in the future.
The aim of every headline, their only job really, is to grab attention, making it impossible not to read on. To make people so interested in what you have to say that they can’t wait to get their teeth into the rest.
But the ones above don’t really work. So why not?
It’s Not All Bad…
It is because they do nothing to attract any attention or arouse curiosity. Actually that’s a bit of a lie (well, you did read this far so at least we know the main one did its job!)
If we are being honest, the reason you read on is probably more to do with the part in brackets. That’s not to say that the rest of the headline is completely terrible.
Its saving grace is that it asks a question. Doing so directly addresses the reader, meaning they are engaged without even realising it. Also there seems to be part of our brain that, when asked a question, cannot help but try to find the answer. Hinting that this will follow does our chances of keeping the reader no harm at all.
In saying that, it is still pretty weak on its own. Just as well we have the bit in brackets to ride in and save the day.
It gives the promise of a bit of information. A sneaky way of saying ‘here’s what not to do’. Already our reader is beginning to feel a little intrigued.
Secondly, it flows nicely…but it could be better
Headlines usually have mere seconds to communicate a message and they have to do so as efficiently as possible. If you take a look at the first part of the headline (the bit not in brackets) and say it aloud, the ‘s’ sounds seem to clash and you find that your tongue trips over it. It feels weird to read and as a result readers may move on.
To resolve this, all we have to do is add a letter and remove the last ‘s’. Try saying ‘What makes a headline work?’ Much better wouldn’t you agree? No clashy ‘s’ sounds, as well as an extra ‘beat’ in the middle.
You have to be careful when adding words though. While it needs to flow, a headline can’t be too long. We can get away with the odd one-letter word but, for the most part, any more than seven words and you’ve lost the reader. Have a look at the newspapers and billboards around you. Brevity rules!
The final thing our headline tries to do is something a little bit unexpected. It goes out on a limb in order to gain a little bit of trust from the reader. I mean who would call their own work rubbish…
This is a lesson in itself. Do something unexpected.
Go creative on the approach you take, the wording used, the tone, the grammar, punctuation, anything. There are no wrong answers because remember, the only job a headline has to do is attract attention and pique interest. Not follow some imagined set of ‘rules’ (shudder.)
If you write a headline that reads the same as everyone else’s, that’s all it will ever be. Ever heard the expression a sheep in a snowstorm? Well your headline will be a snowball in a snowstorm, with less chance in hell of getting noticed.
You may be thinking that this is easier said than done. But all you need to do is sit down with an empty pad and fill it with headlines. Go as crazy as you like – you’re the only one who will see them so there really is no need to feel self-conscious.
If you own a famous smoothie company, for example, you could write a tonne that tell your reader how delicious they are. Then loads that sing the praises of all the health benefits they have. Then a whole lot that mention the good things your company does for the environment.
Just begin with the benefits and go from there.
I’m sure that once you get into it, you will even start to find it quite fun. Pretty soon, something will jump out at you…go with it!
So, just to recap, here are five things you can do to improve your headlines:
- Use questions whenever possible; they are great for engaging the reader.
- Give the promise of a little nugget of information to encourage the reader to continue on.
- Make sure that your headline flows nicely. If you need to, add a word or two – but don’t go overboard. This leads us nicely on to the next tip…
- …keep it short and sweet. You only have seconds to grab someone’s attention.
- Get creative! Do something unexpected! And have fun with it!
In the next post we will move on into the rest of what you are writing about.
Starting at the very beginning, we’ll move into the business of actually writing the content of your article. How to ensure that it keeps your reader on the edge of their seat all the way to the bottom. So think more toboggan than ski-jump.
In other words, how to make sure the body of your writing does justice to the brilliant headline you will no doubt have written at the top of the page.