It’s All in the Headline

Pop quiz: Can you remember three things that happened in the world of Presidential campaign news this week?  Here are my answers:

  1. The Pope accused Donald Trump of being “not Christian.”
  2. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley endorsed Marco Rubio.
  3. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, and a partisan battle brews on over President Obama’s plans to replace him.

Were these the only things that happened in the political news cycle this week?  Not by a long shot.  Were they the headlines that rose to the top for me?  Yes.

And that’s just it: We’re bombarded with news and information every day, every hour – even every minute. And amid the endless flow of information, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we’re always seeking out the headline. The key takeaway.The “one thing” that’s most important for us to know.

Turns out it’s not just in our heads.

Research shows that when it comes to written communication – whether you’re delivering your message via press release, blog post, issue brief, or even e-mail – it’s critical to get the headline right. Because, as the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza so aptly once put it, Americans tend toread headlines, and not much else.

The great advertising guru David Ogilvy knew this well.  He famously summed up the business case for good headline-writing this way: “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

But what if your message is not so simple?  Should you just throw up your hands?  Not at all. What you’ve got to do comes straight out of the copywriter’s playbook: You must convince your reader that it’s worth their time to read past the headline.

So what’s the secret to writing a great headline?  In short, make it irresistible to ignore. That’s a tall order, to be sure – especially if the message you need to deliver has more to do with, say, changes to the tax code.  But we can take lesson from those who do it well.

Here are five of my favorites:

Topic: Displeasure with the President’s FY17 budget proposal

Irresistible Headline: We need to tackle our fiscal problems before they tackle us (Source: House Speaker Paul Ryan)

Topic: The lack of accountability in the state of Texas’s foreclosure auction process

Irresistible Headline: Going once, going twice, going to be confused (Source: The Corpus Christi Caller Times)

Topic: Efforts to foster greater competition in the telecommunications industry

Irresistible Headline: The FCC has moved closer to letting Americans dump their crappy cable boxes (Source: Quartz)

Topic: One of the reasons Americans living with HIV/AIDS aren’t seeking out medical treatment that can extend and improve their lives

Irresistible Headline: Save lives: End the HIV stigma (Source: CNN.com)

Topic: The complexities of neurological research on systematic thinking

Irresistible Headline: Does thinking fast mean you’re thinking smarter? (Source:Smithsonian)

So remember, when your reader is constantly battling information overload, make it easier, not harder, for them to grasp what you’re trying to say. Reel them in, from the very first word of your headline, and you’ll make your message stick every time.

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