“Create a knockout headline first, then an amazing first par, then a fantastic picture (if relevant). A great story will follow. Don’t try writing a story and then reversing into the headline.”
It doesn’t matter what you are writing: an letter to Mum (does anyone still write them?), a proposal, a speech, a novel.
Your headline is the neatest possible synthesis of your story angle. If you can make it sizzle, if it makes your audience hungry for more, then chances are your story can do the same.
We did it as reporters/producers in tabloid TV (the first pars and the first pics teased the audience on what was to come), in public relations we do it in media releases (if the headline grabs, the journalist might read on), we do it for blogs; in fact we do it for everything, from our elevator pitch to our dinner conversations.
Here’s the eight tips to creating the best possible headline:
- Sweat on it – just because it’s short doesn’t mean its easy; in fact, because it’s short, it’s hard
- Exploit the controversy of the day – the best way to get ‘views’
- Witty one-liners and word-plays work
- So does offering tips
- and posing questions
- Short words work / long words fail
- Accuracy always / deception never
- Offensiveness is a no-no (sex, religion, politics, coarse language).
Read the tabloids’ headlines and you’ll pick up the tricks.
Trouble creating the clever headline?
As we wrote above, it’s hard because it’s short. As various people including Churchill and Pascal (1660) are meant to have said something like:
“I made this letter long because I lack the time to make it short.”
One excellent idea is to draft a variety of clever headlines and choose the best. Hats-off to Adam Mordecai in this article. He describes how he drafts 25 potential headlines for each story and then chooses the best. The discipline sounds a little scary, but the outcome would be superb. As he says,
“Then in the pitch room, they’d assume that 20 were crap, and the remaining 5 had an opportunity to be an article. Then once they had their headline, they’d finish their piece.”
Mordecai goes on to give 15 dos/don’ts on what he thinks makes a headline work. They include gems like ‘Play heroes and villains off against each other’. Then, ‘Make sure everyone feels comfortable with the headline – Would you Mom share this headline?’ and ‘Don’t curse’.
It helps to study what others do. One good place to start is tabloid television – there are people there for whom creating promos (one-liners) is a full time occupation. Another good place is Twitter.