When I was an editor at Crain’s Chicago Business, I sat next to one of the best headline writers in the business. He could sit at his desk all day and spit them out like a gumball machine, the ideas popping into his head, running down his arms, through his fingers and onto the keyboard. Chewy deliciousness in every one.
“How do you do it?” I would ask him.
“Just relax your brain,” he would say. “It’s easy.”
We can’t all be the King of Puns. But if you want to try, you can start by picking up The Economist, which consistently comes up with some of the best headlines I’ve ever read. Like a great conversationalist, its headlines are witty and informative. They catch your attention and make you want to move in closer to hear more. Why are they so good? Because they often include a play on words. Here are some examples.
Article topic: The cost of making cell phone calls overseas
Headline: When in roam
Article topic: The merger of two big meat producers
Headline: A steak in the market
Headlines are a crucial part of any article, whether you’re writing them for a client alert, newsletter, presentation, or thought leadership report. Often they determine whether someone will read the rest of your article. Sometimes it’s the only thing they read. That’s why it’s so important to get them right. Or at least make them interesting. Here are four tips for improving your chances of writing attention-grabbing headlines.
1. Make them active.
One of the biggest problems I’ve noticed with our firm’s headlines is they are often general statements of the topic, such as “Cross-border M&A trends” or “Recent developments in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s antidumping procedures.”
When it comes to writing headlines, strong verbs are your best friend. They provide a sense of action and specificity that topical statements lack. Here are my revisions of those headlines with the help of our new best friend.
Before: Cross-border M&A trends
After: Cross-border M&A rises 20%
Before: Recent developments in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s antidumping procedures
After: U.S. Commerce Department increases dumping liability for exporters
As you can see from these examples, using a verb not only makes a headline more interesting, but it also forces you to pinpoint what your article is about. A headline stating what the cross-border M&A actually trend is — that transactions have risen 20% — is more effective because it causes your reader to think, “20%? Really? I wonder why,” and then read on to find out.
In the second example, telling your audience the U.S. Commerce Department is going to increase dumping liability for exporters is much more likely to get the attention of those exporters than a vague reference to “recent developments.”
2. Speak directly to your audience.
Another common problem with our headlines is they don’t highlight why the article should matter to our clients. Headlines such as “New arbitration law in France” or “Race discrimination ordinance on employment now fully operational” speak to no one in particular. It’s unclear who the audience is. Here’s how to change that:
Before: New arbitration law in France
After: France’s new arbitration law streamlines process for international parties
Before: Race discrimination ordinance on employment now fully operational
After: Race discrimination law creates new liability for Hong Kong employers
None of these headlines are particularly Economist-worthy, but at least in the “after” versions we know who the new laws will impact and how. To make sure my headlines address the concerns of my audience, here are some phrases I commonly use:
“What you need to know about…”
“Top 5 things you should know about…”
When put into practice on particular topics, the headlines become:
How to navigate Brazil’s new anti-corruption law
What foreign employers need to know about Russian labor law
Top 5 things U.S. companies should know about merger control in China
Tips for reducing compliance risk in M&A transactions
See how much better it sounds when you talk to your audience?
3. Keep them short.
One of the best ways to make your headlines memorable is to keep them short. Shorter is always easier to remember, so do whatever you can to get your headline down to the fewest number of words possible while also conveying what the article is about. My rule of thumb is no longer than seven words. To achieve greater brevity, look for long phrases that could be replaced with short phrases or a single word, like this:
Before: U.S. Commerce Department increases dumping liability for exporters
After: New rule increases dumping liability for exporters
Keep in mind when writing headlines that you don’t have to explain everything all at once. Headlines are meant to pique interest, not tell the whole story in one sentence. Is it really critical that your audience knows it’s the U.S. Commerce Department that increased liability? Or can you shorten it to “new rule,” then state in the first sentence of your article that it’s a U.S. Commerce Department rule? These are the types of questions to ask yourself as you edit.
4. Be clever, but not too clever.
One of my favorite headlines I’ve ever written is, “What does it mean to be sisters?” It was for a story about whether Chicago’s relationships with its sister cities around the world really generated business for Chicago companies. Under the headline was a photo of two little girls with their arms around each other.
The reason this headline worked was that it had a double meaning. When you saw the headline and looked at the photo, you might have thought it was a story about siblings. When you began reading the article, you discovered it was about the business concept of “sisters.”
Many of the best headlines take clichés and common phrases and turn them on their heads. For example, it’s not particularly clever to write a headline like, “Look before you leap” because it’s a cliché. But if you take that cliché and tweak it to something like “Look before you sleep,” for a story about bed bugs, you’re moving in the direction of originality and wit.
However, make sure you’re not being too clever or using so obscure a reference that no one will understand what the article is about. Using verbs, addressing your audience and keeping headlines short are the most important steps. Being clever is for those who want to earn bonus points. With a little practice in the art of puns, you too can become a headline gum ball machine.
Note to readers: This post was written while I was conducting writing workshops for the lawyers and business services professionals at Baker McKenzie, where I wrote and edited the law firm’s thought leadership content for eight years. In the post, I rely on examples from Baker McKenzie communications and refer to the firm in the first person because I worked there at the time of writing.