Some headlines seem engineered to become classics.
“Headless body found in topless bar.” Genius.
“Big rig carrying fruit crashes on 210 freeway, creates jam.” SO SATISFYING.
“These are the souls who time men’s tries,” a Sports Illustrated headline about the people who brought their own stopwatches to track meets. Send that person to the headline Hall of Fame.
To be fair, those are unique stories. Most of the time, our stories don’t offer us the chance to do that kind of Ph.D.-level wordplay.
Now, let’s look the typical alumni magazine headline. Perhaps we can start with a tragic case study. Mine.
A few years ago, I was thrilled to win an award for a story I wrote about a scientist who had played a critical role in developing new treatments for HIV patients. I called it “The Pioneer.” The year after that, I won another award for a story I wrote about a father-son team that had transformed the media landscape in Minnesota. The headline? “The Pioneers.”
I’m really proud of those stories. But I gotta be honest about those headlines I wrote.
COME ON. There is nothing at all similar between a media mogul and an HIV researcher. But you wouldn’t know that from the headlines.
Headlines are tough. But getting them right — or at least making them better — is essential.
Your headline is the door to your story
We spend weeks putting together stories that are irresistible and true. We — and our teams of writers — meet sources in person and talk to them over the phone. We record interviews and take diligent notes, do deep research and collect documents. We agonize over leads and kickers.
These are stories that are worth reading.
And then we spend seven seconds writing a completely dumb headline like “Finding success” or “Sea change” or “By the numbers.” Or, you know, “The pioneers.”
With our sloppy headlines, we sabotage our chance to get our readers to pay attention. All of our work is pointless if a reader skims that headline, sees nothing compelling in it, and moves on.
A good headline opens up our sense of curiosity. It tugs us into the story.
Don’t believe me? Here are some cold, hard numbers.
In a study of more than 100 million headlines, researchers found that a great headline got EIGHT TIMES more engagement than a bad one.
EIGHT TIMES! These are headlines that people have have worked on tirelessly. They’re headlines written by folks whose paychecks are determined, in part, by how their headlines performed.
In other words, this research does not even consider recognizably terrible, sloppy headlines like (for instance) “The pioneers.”
The point is this: I can do better. You can do better. And when you do, there is a huge, huge upside.
Could you get EIGHT TIMES more reader engagement by fixing this one piece of your magazine, your web stories, and your social posts?
In the next sections, I’ll offer up some broad guidelines on improving your headlines — and some sure-fire hits if you’re stuck. These are processes that I follow, that my team follow, and that you should follow, too.
Use these frameworks to create more engaging headlines
While good headlines are a combination of art and science, there are a few things that are worth keeping in mind as you transform your headlines from so-so to spectacular.
1. Increase the volume.
One of the things I often hear from others — both editors and writers — is that “I’m just not good at headlines.”
If you’re only spending a few rushed minutes trying to come up with a headline, of course you’re not good at them.
The first time I got serious about my own headlines was in 2016, when I attended the CASE Editors Forum.
An editor from Buzzfeed spoke at the conference, and he said that they wrote 25 headlines for every story before they picked one.
TWENTY. FIVE. HEADLINES.
I considered myself a total hero if I came up with more than five, and he was saying that at 5, my work was only 20 percent done? Ugh.
He said that the first 10 or 15 or even 20 might be awful. It was beyond that 20 mark that things got really interesting. Here’s more about that specific strategy.
2. Exploit tension.
In my favorite Masterclass, Malcolm Gladwell said something that astonished me. He said that he loves getting edited, but he doesn’t let anyone mess with is his headlines. It’s true of his New Yorker stories. It’s true of his books.
He engineers his headlines to have tension embedded within them. It’s one of the things that make his stories irresistible. Here’s a sampling of some of his headlines, see if you agree:
- How school shootings spread
- The art of failure
- The ordinary greatness of Roger Bannister
- Learning to love a drug lord
- The gift of doubt
I’m willing to bet that at least one of those sparked your interest. Gladwell is one of the best. Learn from him.
3. Eliminate two-word alliterative/rhyming headlines.
For whatever reason, I think a lot of us have convinced ourselves that two-word alliterative or rhyming headlines count as “clever enough.”
But let’s be brutally honest with ourselves. The vast majority of the time, they are not. They’re not really descriptive and they rarely engage your reader.
You know what I mean: Inspiring Innovators. Name Game. Success Story.
Spend 10 more minutes and do better. You can, I promise.
4. Go long.
I love long headlines. Now, long is relative. But Esquire, for example, used to have a section it called “Context-free highlight from a letter we won’t be running.” So descriptive! Taffy Brodesser-Akner recently wrote a Times profile called “Bradley Cooper is not really into this profile.” Fast Company recently had a piece called “This is how we get more women in venture capital.”
Not only do longer headlines allow you to add a little more information about the story, but they’re also often helpful for print publications. Designers can often do incredible, unexpected work when they have a few more words to work with.
Here are some headlines that work
I don’t know what stories are on your list right now, but I’m willing to bet you can improve at least one of them with one of the headlines below. I use them all the time! I’ll even share why they work so that you can find your own variations that are perfect for your specific situation.
The insider’s guide to…
Everybody likes feeling special. It’s why so many people like exclusive information and VIP access. Maybe that roundup of political stars is “An insider’s guide to power.” Maybe you can give your readers “A backstage pass to the university campaign.”
The case for…
Over the course of its history, The Atlantic has had more than 250 stories that start with ‘The case for…’ or ‘The case against…’
First, you can put a lot of really crazy stuff in that empty space. The Atlantic has made serious and not-so-serious cases for pickled onions, breastfeeding, and spending too much on summer vacations. They’ve made cases against happiness and high school sports.
Make a case for your sky-high tuition (oh, I mean, NOT YOURS! HA! Your tuition is totally fine.) Make another case for having students spend more (or less) time in the classroom.
The case for or against something is a perfect headline, say Atlantic writers, because it’s “elegant and straightforward and supremely self-confident.”
The quote headline.
The Hollywood Reporter has mastered the quote headline. They just pull one of the best quotes and throw it on top of the piece. I definitely want to read ‘“Everyone is an idiot, everyone is an ideologue.” And sign me up to read ‘I’m too tired to be fighting.’
These are quotes that say something interesting about what’s ahead in the story — but don’t give too much away. I love it.
What headline tricks and tips do you employ? Shoot me an email anytime.