Want to know everything about writing great headlines? It only takes 5 minutes.
Type ‘How to write the best headline’ into Google and in seconds you’ll be overwhelmed with articles explaining the science behind crafting a header that will get you clicks, page views, and shares.
Two minutes in you’ll have templates and examples of all the top performers like Listicles, How to’s, and Questions.
By the time 5 minutes are up you’ll know all about how we have a subconscious urge to know the answers to posed questions, why we’re drawn to numbered lists, and that we’re all suckers for life hacks and the promise of benefits.
You’ll even get some great data takeaways, like the fact that 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy but only 2 will read the rest.
If it’s not already, it should be obvious why writing the best headline possible is so important and why so much time and effort goes into analyzing what works.
With so much content available your headline is your first and sometimes only chance to stand out.
But a good headline isn’t just a means of getting clicks through to your blog post. A good headline is your first opportunity to build trust with your readership and to create an honest and safe reading environment that people want to come back to time and time again.
Sending your reader the right message
As Brian Clark, CEO of Copyblogger, regularly states,
Every sentence has one main goal: to get you to read the next one.
If this is the truth then your headline is the most important sentence you’ll ever write.
The headline’s goal is much more important than your body copy. It’s a call to action. It’s you directly asking your reader to invest their time in your words.
You can think of it as a promise that you’re going to fulfill in your post.
It’s a setup and there needs to be a pay-off later or else your audience will feel cheated. It’s like telling a joke without a punchline.
This is why honesty is the most important part of your headline.
Beyond the tips and tricks that have been proven to get you clicks, honesty is what ensures that your readers are going to stay to read through the article.
Honesty builds trust, which in turn creates return readers. As Thomas J Watson, one of the first CEOs of IBM (and one of the greatest salespeople of all time), said:
“the toughest thing about the power of trust is that it’s very difficult to build and very easy to destroy.”
There’s nothing more upsetting than spending time reading through an article only to realize the headline lied to you.
Why put all of the effort and time into researching and writing a great blog post or article just to kill it by not being honest from the start? For what? Maybe a few more clicks?
A dishonest headline will lose your audience’s trust in a matter of seconds.
Four techniques to keep your headline writing honest
As I said earlier, there are thousands of resources out there that will help you in the art of crafting a headline using time-tested templates, but many fail to mention the measures you can put in place to ensure that your headline is truthful about what readers can expect when they click through.
Here are four techniques I use to check my headline before posting:
1. Make sure your headline is your thesis statement
Your headline needs to wear multiple hats.
On the one hand, it needs to grab your reader’s attention and propel them with enough momentum that they reach the real meat of your article. But its responsibilities don’t end there.
Creating an honest headline doesn’t mean just one that is attention grabbing, but one that will act as a gateway into the world of the article.
As soon as you cement an idea or a judgment into someone’s head, it’s almost impossible to get them to change their mind. It’s like when you meet someone for the first time having heard things about them from a friend. Your mind works hard to confirm what you already ‘know’ about them and will even go out of its way to ignore facts that go against your opinion. It’s what psychologists call the confirmation bias.
For your article, the headline is that first bit of information your readers get before they meet the real thing. To make your readers feel safe, they need to be able to constantly confirm what you are saying in the article with what they know (or think they know) from the headline.
Your headline needs to be a thesis statement the reader can constantly refer back to.
If you’re explaining something long-winded or complex, they can quickly return to the headline and become grounded in the world of the article again.
When you’re writing keep your headline in your mind and ask continuously ‘does this match up with what I’ve promised?’
2. Learn from the movies and make sure you have a payoff
In screenwriting, one of the most important principles is Setups and Payoffs—if you show your audience something early on, that something needs to be used in a later scene.
If the setup is your promise, the payoff is the fulfillment.
Here’s a famous example from Thelma and Louise: Early on when Thelma is packing she throws in her gun seemingly on a whim. If she didn’t end up using the gun later on in the movie we would have felt confused, or worse: cheated.
The idea is summed up nicely by Russian playwright Anton Chekov who is best known for saying:
“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”
When you’re writing a headline you need to think of it as the setup for the payoff your readers will get when they finish the article.
That way when the two pieces come together and the audience receives the payoff they were expecting, they feel satisfied and complete.
3. Ask why your audience would read this
Any journalist will extol the importance of the 5 W’s (who, what, where, when, why) in writing a well-rounded article. To me, the most important factor, especially when writing a headline, is the why. It’s what brings everything else together. It’s the thread that ties together and make sense of the who, what, where, and when.
When you’re writing your headline stop and ask why someone would want to read the rest of the article.
Is it to learn something new (such as, 5 weak words to avoid)?
Or maybe to get your specific insight (Why I killed my standing desk)?
Whatever it is, understanding the why, working it into your headline, and then making sure your body copy accurately and fully answers that question, ensures that your readers don’t feel cheated.
Why provides context. It gives you the bearing that will guide you through the rest of the article. If it’s not there your readers are bound to get lost and will end up asking why they wasted their time reading your post.
4. Get to the point quickly
Don’t beat around the bush.
One of the most popular things I’ve ever written was a post titled How I forgot to write.
It was a hard article to write. It’s scary to put your insecurities on display, but when I did it felt amazing. I wanted to share that with people—that honesty and transparency about who I am and what I can and can’t do.
Because the article also included some suggestions on ways to get back into the flow of writing again I could’ve titled it something like 6 steps to get back your writing chops or Want to be a better writer? Follow these simple tips, but I didn’t.
Instead, I chose to go with the thing that said exactly what was the core of my argument.
The headline told exactly what the article would be about—the things that had happened in my personal and professional life that caused me to lose my ability to write.
When readers got through to my suggestions of how to break through their own insecurities about writing, they thought back to my headline and how I had executed on my promise of being open about my own issues. Everything became personal and relatable.
Writing from your heart and letting go of your own fear of judgment takes time and bravery, but when you do, don’t sugar coat it with a weak or misleading headline.
Tell people exactly what you’re writing. And if you can’t then maybe you shouldn’t be publishing the article anyways.
I don’t want people to leave my articles without finishing them. Not just because it looks good on our blog metrics we send out, but because it aligns with both my personal and professional values.
When I publish an article either that I’ve written or one of our contributors has, I want to feel like it is filled with substance—things that people care enough about to read thoroughly and hopefully share around.
Honesty can come even before the first few lines of your article. Your headline is the first and main chance you have to convey honesty to your readership. Don’t let the opportunity pass.