The Incredibly Obvious but Often Forgotten Rules for Writing Brutally Effective Headlines

Posted by in Copywriting

About a year ago I took some time off projects, this site included, to focus on a couple of businesses that I was intent on growing from infancy to maturity.

One of them is a local cleaning company, Neatfreak, and the other is a small business web development company (SuaveSites.com).  Both have been tremendously successful, but it was conversations surrounding SuaveSites that gave me inspiration to write this post.

People Want to be Amazed, Not Sensationalized

When I tell people that I make an extra $1,000/mo, part-time, for approximately 4-8 hours of work (per month) the reactions tend to be lukewarm, if not somewhat positive.

However, when I tell people that I make $125/hr part time while sitting on my living room couch, the reactions I receive are almost hilariously polarized.  Some are cynical, declaring my claim to be both false and sensationalist (I’ll come back to that word in a moment), and others ask me what it is I’m doing that could possibly pay that much.

The humour comes from the fact that, at least with respect to my part-time income, both statements are completely true.  However, one showcases a relatively small income ($1,000/month isn’t exactly going to buy you a Ferrari, is it?), and the other showcases what most consider a stratospherically high hourly income (who do you know that makes $125/hr?).

There’s a lesson here, and it’s a simple one: when making statements that you want to illicit a positive response from others with, always make it attention grabbing and attainable.

Going back to the two examples above, both are exaggerations of their underlying faults.  The first (I make $1,000/mo…) fails to generate significant response because most people today don’t consider $1,000 enough to be worthy of significant personal investment.  The second statement (I make $125/hr…) generates a mostly cynical response due to the claim of having an hourly wage equal to that of surgeons as well as due to the overwhelming amount of “make money from home” garbage that circulates across the internet.

When writing your headlines, create something that amazes someone– and do it without sensationalizing the message you’re trying to deliver.

Nearly Any Dramatic Statement Could Be a Headline

When we communicate orally we use language without conscious thought given to the dynamics of speech.  It’s natural to emphasize the important bits, skim over the details, and bring the attention back to the big payoff.  Referring to the above examples, “I make $1,000/month, part time, while working approximately 4 to 8 hours per month” is very easily spoken.  However, when you write that statement down, it loses much of its power.

Why?

The same logic applies to the second example.  The statement “I earn $125/hour, part time, from my living room” is also tremendously powerful when spoken, but when it is read as opposed to heard it loses much of its impact.

Why?

The answer comes from your internal dialogue.  Everyone has their inner voice, and we use it without even realizing its purpose.  Every time you read something, be it an ad, a product label, a book, or even subtitles on the TV, you are reading it in your internal voice.  You inflect, deflect, emphasize, and inflate based on what you find important.  This little tidbit of information is key.

When you hear something you are hearing it from someone else’s voice.  They emphasize, inflect, etc. leaving you free to interpret the message they are delivering as opposed to trying to determine how the message was intended to be delivered.

Knowing this we can take nearly any statement and turn it into an effective headline.

For example, “I can’t believe the highway is closed for construction again!” is something fairly typical that you might say/hear.  Written as an effective headline it may be “Highway’s Closed Again: How Your Morning Commute Just Got Longer”.  It’s effectively the same statement, but the latter lends itself to your curiosity a bit more, doesn’t it?

How about this one: “My wife and I are arguing over money again”.  An effective headlineified variant of that statement could be:

“Financial Inequality Creates Conflict at Home”

“Why Marriages are Dissolving: The Financial Crunch Hits Home”

“How Wall Street’s Financial Pitfalls are Destroying Your Home Life”

Or my favourite… “No Money?  No Sex!  Financial Shortcomings Are Destroying Our Sex Lives (and Marriages!)”

Drama creates curiosity, and curiosity creates engagement.  Remember this when writing your headlines.

Effective Language Exponentially Increases Reader Engagement in Your Headlines

The beauty of language (or, at least, the English language) is the sheer variety in ways to express your message.  Are you mad at someone, or are you just angry, or upset, or perturbed, or perhaps you’re mortified?  No?  What about livid- are you so mad that you’re fuming at someone?

Certain words generate predictable responses due to how we naturally use them.  When you see someone with a frown and furrowed eyebrows, you assume they’re mad.  When you see someone pacing back and forth, yelling into a cell phone, waiving their hands in the air, do you  say they’re “mad”?  Or maybe they’re completely livid?  What about unbelievably angry?  Are they so angry that you just about don’t believe it?

The words you choose will make or break your headline.  They will shape how the headline sounds when your reader reads it, and it will determine how much emphasis your reader gives your message.  Use this to your advantage, but always remember that overuse of certain language elements can disengage or disillusion your reader.

Let’s look at the headline I used for this sub-section: “Effective Language Exponentially Increases Reader Engagement in Your Headlines”.  Each word was chosen due to the effect it’d have on the message.  That same headline would be written any number of different ways:

Using Good Language Will Make Your Readers Notice Your Headlines

Dramatic Language Significantly Increases Reader Involvement in Your Headlines

Writing Headlines that “Pop” Increases User Engagement

Try as I might, none of those are as good as the original.  Why?  Because the original used words that you’ve heard before, but don’t hear every day.  ”Effective” is exactly as it implies; “exponentially” implies as HUGE increase in whatever follows it, but it doesn’t sound “salesy”; “Engagement” implies action from the reader, which is universally a positive thing when writing copy; “Your” creates a sense of ownership.  In short, each word used carefully shapes how the message sounds.

Relatable language, even if it is not often used, creates familiarity.  Familiarity creates engagement.  Write headlines using familiar language.

Finally, When You Sensationalize You Create Initial Interest at the Expense of the Dilution of Your Message

Many web masters, marketers, copywriters, business owners, advertising professionals, and just about everyone else that has tried to sell something has done so by sensationalizing the product/service/brand they’re trying to sell.  This might work for some people, but for the (increasingly) vast majority, sensationalist messaging harms your cause and lessens their likeliness to positively receive your message.

A good example would be the fictitious headlines used in a full-page ad in a popular magazine for two competing cola’s:

“It’s True: 8/10 Taste Testers Say FakeNShake Cola is the Best They’ve Ever Had!”

“Our Customers Love The Refreshing Taste of TastyTreat.  Try It, You’ll Love It Too!”

Which one resonates with you the most?  Chances are it’s TastyTreat’s headline, and if so, it’s likely because of the omission of one sensationalist word: “best”.

When you tell someone that something is the “best you’ve ever had” it immediately creates a neutral-negative response before it creates a positive one.  Why?  Because the other person is now thinking of all of the things they’ve had and, upon remembering how much they enjoyed them, doubt that your thing, whatever it is, will be better.

Doubtful?  How many times have you heard a variation of this:

Person A: “Dude, Cam’s has the best steak I’ve ever had.  Seriously, the best!

Person B: “The best steak?  I don’t know man, Phil’s has a pretty mean steak…”

Replace steak with phones, cars, computers, electronics, etc.  The message is universal, and it’s universal because it’s human nature to value your prior experiences over the experiences of others.  This doesn’t mean that Person B will never go to Cam’s for a steak.  Rather, it means that Person B likely won’t think Cam’s has the best steak, and after they have Cam’s steak, they’re still more likely to favour Phil’s steak.

But, what if the conversation went a bit differently?

Person A: “Dude, I went to Cam’s last night and had the Camtastic steak.  It was delicious”

Person B: “That’s awesome man, I’ve never been to Cam’s before.”

Person A: “Yea, it was cooked perfectly; nice and tender, with a hint of sweetness.  I’ve never had anything quite like it.”

Person B: “Wow, that does sound good- I’ll have to try it!”

You’ve also heard that exact conversation dozens of times throughout your life.  Why is it more effective?  For the opposite reason the original conversation was ineffective: by leaving sensationalism out of it, Person A is able to project an experience that Person B is likely to want to experience as well.

Instead of Person B thinking “The best steak?  Somehow I doubt that…”, they are likely thinking something along the lines of “a hint of sweetness?  That sounds really interesting…”.

Sensationalism in language overshadows relatability.  When writing a headline, write something that causes the reader to relate.  This prevents your message from becoming diluted, and instead causes your reader to think about the message (even if it’s not immediate).

Let’s Wrap this Thing Up, Shall We?

There are hundreds, potentially thousands, of “rules” that could be applied when writing headlines.  However, assuming you know the basics (proper grammatical convention, no spelling errors, etc.) the ones I find the most value in are the ones I talked about in this post.

To summarize:

  • Always aim to “amaze” your reader, but do so without being sensationalist.  An “amazing” headline is one that causes someone to pay close attention.  It’s a statement that makes someone pause to consider your message.  When you sensationalize, you sound scripted and salesy.  Nobody wants to be sold.
  • Adding a bit of drama, be it via controversy/emotional investment/etc., will create a natural curiosity within your reader.  A little curiosity will create user engagement.  Too much drama, however, and your message will be ignored.
  • Write headlines using familiar language.  Familiarity creates engagement (that’s a good thing).  Language is relatable when it’s somewhat common, but not overused and not too simple.  Something creating drama, or is something causing tension?  Language that is too simple may disengage a reader, and language that is too complex may not be understood by the reader.
  • Sensationalism in language overshadows the message and dilutes its effectiveness.  Write a headline that will cause your reader to relate the message you’re sending.