Good headlines entice consumer audiences to read (or at least skim) content and take away its key points.
The challenge? Whether you’re writing for digital or print, you have a few seconds at best to capture readers’ attention with a headline that addresses multiple priorities.
A headline serves readers, who make snap decisions about whether they care about a topic. It should both quickly convey what a story is about and trigger curiosity. Online, an optimized headline also serves search engines that help readers find your content.
Not every headline can offer a perfect blend of grabby words that snag readers and keywords that aid a search. But following these steps can help draw readers’ interest, shape their thinking and, most importantly, steer their actions.
1. Be simple and clear
It’s best to limit headlines to no more than six or seven words for print—fewer for digital—each word preferably having three or fewer syllables. That forces you to hone the point of the content to its essence and distill each word to its most straightforward form so readers can easily process the meaning as they skim by. When possible, skip medical or technical terms that won’t be familiar to most lay readers. For example, instead of “Recently Developed Radiology Technology Determines if Tumors Are Benign or Malignant,” a community audience might be better served by “New Imaging Test Reveals Cancer Answers.”
2. Appeal to emotion
Use powerful words that spark a feeling or impart meaning, such as “winning,” “critical,” “fast,” “secrets,” “advanced,” “safer,” “strength”/“strong,” and “best”/“better.” Pose questions that readers might want answered, such as “Are You at Risk of Colorectal Cancer?” Look for a key quote that can get the point of a story across in a personal and emotional way. (AP Style calls for such heads to be enclosed in single quotation marks.) For example, ‘Cancer’s Not Going to Rule Me’ immediately tells readers they’ll learn about a survivor’s spirited fight.
3. Focus on benefits
What will readers get out of the story? With that question in mind, frame the headline in terms they care about. For example, “Pregnancy Tests in Every Trimester” may accurately describe an article, but “Your Pregnancy: A Guide to Testing” suggests a more personal, less clinical benefit. Two ways to indicate a benefit are:
· Offer a promise. “Lose Weight, Add Years” captures how combating obesity can have long-term health payoffs. “Secrets of Better Sleep” not only promises more restful nights but also hints that your experts offer specialized insights.
· Present solutions. “Chronic Foot Problems—Solved!” states the benefit plainly. “Skin Cancer: Fast, Effective Treatment” lets readers know they can get top-notch help from your organization for a common condition. Another way to make it clear your content solves a problem is by leading with “How to.”
4. Use active language
Beware of “by”—it often appears in passive sentences, which appeal less to readers as they lack the energy and directness of active constructions. “Heart Risks Are Improved by New Technology” would read zippier as “New Technology Reduces Heart Risks.” Another example: “Our Community Is Served by Hospital Volunteers” becomes more interesting when worded as “Our Volunteers: Making a Difference for Patients.”
5. Sharpen verbs
Some verbs are more likely to elicit interest than others. For example, using “Shrinks” instead of “Reduces” sends a subtle message that the text will read more like an engaging conversation than a dry report. One caveat: Make sure action verbs match the tone of your brand and the tastes of your audience. For example, changing “Reduces” to “Slashes” or “Cuts” might strike the wrong note for healthcare communications. Another tip: Try to use words that play on your topic: “How to Nip Spring Allergies in the Bud” or “Smart Ways to Head Off Concussions.”
6. Add a number
Headlines with numbers (like the one for this post) tell busy readers they can consume information in bite-sized chunks. Just be sure the content delivers on that promise—avoid wordy, run-on text that readers must work to pull meaning from (an important habit for any headline).
Now that you’ve written a stellar headline, read our tips on how to develop a great angle—how to determine the most compelling focus for a piece and strip away everything else. Identifying a clear scope up front helps ensure that readers will stay engaged and your primary message won’t get lost in the shuffle. It also makes it easier to determine which experts in your organization will be the best sources to consult and quote.