In my early journalism career, I worked as a copy editor and wrote numerous headlines (good, brilliant, cute, meh) for newspapers and magazines. I’ve worked in marketing and public relations and have written countless headlines for articles, reports, brochures and blog posts.
As communicators — whether we are in the media or corporate marketing — we know that one of the challenges we face is the sheer volume of material in the universe competing with anything we produce. And we know that a good headline (or subject line) is essential to pulling in readers.
So, it’s not enough to just describe the story; we have to sell the story.
And what better way to sell the story than to use adjectives? Even better? Go big with them: Alarming! Shocking! Surprising!
Or add overused phrases like: You won’t believe what happened next!
I’d like to beg headline writers everywhere: Please, please, please stop it.
1. These words have lost all meaning.
Is anything shocking or amazing anymore? These words are used so much that they don’t mean anything. My reaction to “amazing” things that I was told I “wouldn’t believe” is roughly the same reaction I have to a Starbucks being built 1 mile from another Starbucks.
2. You’d probably be lying.
When I work with clients on style guides and finding their brand voice, one thing I like to talk about is our headline style. Are we cute and clever? Are we newsy and straightforward? I’m fine with either. But I’m not OK with click bait. Write a compelling headline, of course, but give your audience a sense of what they can really expect. Don’t oversell your content with gimmicky phrases and over-the-top words.
3. Readers are onto you.
Here’s the thing: Your audience actually knows it’s not going to be shocking. They spend enough time on the internet to know that 99 percent of those “shocking” headlines fail to deliver. So, respect them and use words that are more meaningful — and more accurate.