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IT’S YOUR BUSINESS: How to write headlines that work

Joe Smith

Special to the Record

Whether you are writing for print, a blog, email or website, your headline is the first impression and often the only opportunity to capture someone’s attention. Every word in your headline has just one purpose, to get them to go on to your first sentence.

With the average person’s attention span falling to the lowest numbers ever, a properly crafted headline will not just draw them in but will also entice them to go even beyond that first important sentence. If you accomplish that goal your storytelling will take care of the rest.

Perhaps nobody knows the importance of headlines better than those working in the newspaper industry. This job is left most often to copy editors who can capture the essence of a news item or article in a few short words. Take the opportunity to go through today’s paper, read the headlines and see how they capture the heart of the story.

A good headline must be factual, connect to the targeted audience and use active words that capture the essence of the story. This holds true for writing headlines in any kind of media, most specifically for those that go out on the internet where search engine optimization comes into play.

Writing headlines for marketing campaigns or ads is a little different than what appears at the top of a news item. The late John Caples, a legend for over 60 years in the ad game, still serves as a mentor and guide to generations of marketing practitioners. His advice is still relevant today.

One of his first rules in writing is to be specific. Headlines according to him should be able to provoke a response by piquing the reader’s interest with a statement that provides value. He believed in the power of simple words and phrases such as “How to,” “Advice,” “Can you,” “At last,” and a host of other tips and tricks that have withstood the test of time and can be read in many headlines that are out there every day.

I came across an article that highlighted five critical steps involved in the process of headline writing and only one involves the actual writing. It stated that to write great headlines you must:

1) Know who you are talking to.

2) Understand what they care about.

3) Understand why they should be buying from you.

4) Understand the technical elements of writing a headline.

5) Distinguish what does and does not get results.

Another tip that can be quite valuable is to remember when people are reading your ad or message they are alone. Keep that in mind and pretend you are in a one-on-one conversation making a personal appeal that will make them want to know more.

As you will note, I took Caples’ advice and started off this column with a headline that brought you to this final sentence, which hopefully provided you with some insight as to how to write a headline that works.

Joe Smith is a communications consultant and an accomplished fine artist. He can be reached via email at joesmith@shaw.ca

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