Tips for writing powerful and compelling headlines

Posted by Oliver Hogue on 17/11/2017
Tips for writing powerful and compelling headlines

If your story is a shop, your headline is the signage front telling potential customers what’s in store. It needs to be alluring, but factual, intriguing but not teasing. It needs to make a promise to the reader about what they’re going to find inside.

Headlines are important and a study reported in the Washington Post illustrates why. It found roughly 60% of people had not read more than the news headlines in the past week. No news reading, just headlines.

If that’s true, it means a headline like “Malcolm Turnbull Meets Chinese President” is all people are ever going to know about that event. Details of trade agreements being negotiated in the background, or Mr Turnbull’s comments to Xi Jinping about human rights in China, are never read.

This means complex stories need additional help from power headlines to break through that 60% barrier and keep the audience reading on.

A ready-made formula for headlines

If online headlines have taken on a formulaic look recently, that’s because they really do rely on formulas. One found everywhere at moment is Number + Adjective + Noun + Keyword phrase + Promise; where the keyword phrase is the main topic of the article.

This ‘number’ formula produces headlines such as:

  • 7 Professional Tips to Write Catchy Headlines in 30 Seconds
  • 3 Easy Methods to Nail That Job Interview Every Time

This headline style beginning with a numeral is attractive because it appeals to our limited attention spans – we think to ourselves, “Even I can remember three methods!”

Another formula begins with a call to action: Call to Action + Keyword phrase + Promise. This produces:

  • Try These Proven Formulas for Writing Better Headlines
  • Learn These Professional Secrets for Job Interview Success 

The language is active, the keyword phrase stated clearly. Readers know exactly what they are being promised and why it will be useful.

How our brains shape headlines

The formulas above work because they are attractive to the way we think. Only 7 tips? That’s easy! Just 3 things to learn about job interviews? No problem!

But… 32 tips to headline writing success? No thank you!

In fact, according to the Content Marketing Institute, numbers really matter, and odd ones are more attractive than even. A study showed headlines that contained odd numbers had a 20% higher click-through rate than headlines with even ones. Headlines with eight words performed best; numerals are more appealing than words, so it’s 7 not seven.

Using keywords in headlines

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) can teach us some techniques for attention-grabbing headlines. SEO is actually about attracting Google’s search engine algorithm, not readers. But one of the ways it does this is by using ranked keywords. These are the most popular words or phrases that people use when they want to find out something about a topic, ranked in popularity order.

So ‘marriage ceremony’ might rank higher than ‘wedding ceremony’ in terms of how many people type it into Google when searching for that topic. Therefore, if you use marriage ceremony in your headline, you are more likely to attract readers than if you use ‘wedding ceremony’, even though the terms are interchangeable.

Quirkiness has its place

The formulaic method for building headlines aside, there’s still room for quirkiness – the appeal of the unusual. “Could You Pass a 1953 Dating Etiquette Quiz?” for example, poses a challenge and piques our curiosity. What was considered good dating form in the 50s?

A sense of urgency can also grab attention:

  • If You’re Still Using an iPhone 6, You’re in Trouble”

The immediate response is “What! Why?” Is it going to explode like that other smartphone? Is it the latest target of ransomware? The answer may simply be that the iPhone doesn’t have a tech geek’s idea of the latest trendy connectivity – but by then iPhone users have clicked on the story with a trembling hand and read the article.

Whether you decide to place it safe and use a formula or try a more unusual approach, writing headlines is about grabbing attention. If you’ve bucked the trend and read right to the end of this article, you are now ready to unleash your new headline skills on the public!

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