7 easy tips for writing better headlines

by Thursday, October 8, 2015

This statistic is quite depressing: “On average, eight out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only two out of 10 will read the rest.” So if you’re lucky enough to get them to read the headline, there’s an even slimmer chance they’ll continue on to the good stuff? See? Pretty depressing.

We research, write, and pour so much into creating our stories and sharing them with others that it’s an injustice to not invest the time and energy into crafting that perfect first impression. For as much time and effort we put into the actual story, we owe it to ourselves to craft a worthy headline every time.

Readers and content consumers want your headline to deliver on its promise, be unique, add value, and spark some type of action. Below are some of the easiest ways I guide myself through the headline-crafting process. And it’s all straightforward and easy; you just have to be mindful each time you write.

  1. First write the headline, then write the rest.

I believe Ann Handley’s Writing GPS is the perfect blueprint for creating content. And in the first two steps, she suggests to State the Goal (which is essentially the purpose and business objective of the piece) and Reframe It (her fool-proof way to ensure relevancy). Handley suggests getting to the meat and potatoes straight from the gate. So why not do the same when writing the headline?

When you write the headline first, you clearly define what you’re going to write about before you even start. Don’t aim to write it perfectly in the beginning, as you’ll most likely want to tweak it after you’ve written the content. Give it your best shot, write your piece, then come back to make it perfect.

And the best part? You’re doing the hard work first.

Show your point of view and personality. The World of Content is too saturated to come across as dull and lifeless.

  1. Write it for a friend, not a stranger.

Readers want to emotionally connect with content to justify the time investment in consuming it. The more it resonates and speaks to us, the more likely we’re to read it. Develop your headline as though you’re talking to a good friend who happens to be really interested in what you’re writing about.

  • Consider approachability and don’t over-complicate things. Friends don’t like to be talked down to.
  • Avoid negativity. Nobody likes a Debbie-Downer or to be told they’re incompetent or bad at something.
  • Use humor or sarcasm. Because that’s what friends do, right?
  • And show your point of view and personality. The World of Content is too saturated to come across as dull and lifeless.
  1. Convey the benefit.

Anything that asks for an investment – whether it’s time, money, or something else – has to offer the investor something in return. The classic sales technique, WIIFM, What’s In It For Me, has to be addressed every time you craft a headline.

The easiest way to do this is to use words to demonstrate that the reader, in exchange for their investment of time to read the content, will receive some bit of information or advice that will directly benefit them.

These WIIFM words are easy to incorporate into headlines:

  • Absolute
  • Easy
  • Effortless
  • Essential
  • Facts
  • Free
  • Fun
  • Ideas
  • Incredible
  • Lessons
  • Painstaking
  • Principles
  • Reasons
  • Secrets
  • Strange
  • Strategies
  • Tips
  • Tricks
  • Ways


  1. Use numbered lists because they’re not going away.

Everyone’s familiar with this tactic. So much so that I used it for this very post. It’s the reason why BuzzFeed has turned into a content giant – they’ve got it down to a science.

But there’s something about numbers that we really like. Perhaps it’s the fact that they’re quantifiable. We like to know what we’re getting before we get it. Using numbers or lists also sets a clear expectation from the onset. Want five tips? You got it; five tips coming right up. Numbered lists also over-deliver because often readers would be fine with just three tips on the subject, but when your headline promises seven, they’re in for a treat.

Want to take your numbered-list mastery a step further? Use odd numbers. The Content Marketing Institute (CMI) says that the brain likes to believe odd numbers more than even numbers. And there’s even a little something to back that up: “Headlines that contained odd numbers had a 20 percent higher click-through rate than headlines with even numbers,” a CMI article said.

  1. Do your research and make it unique.

There’s a lot of content out there – both good and bad. So be sure to do your research before you start writing the headline.

Look at the big picture, and Google the subject you’re writing about. What are others saying? How are they writing their headlines? Do you see a gap on the subject and a headline that hasn’t been written yet?

Next, Google search the headline you’ve created. This will give the insight to see whether it has already been used. If you can find it out there, then chances are it’s stale and you can do so much better.

  1. Get rid of every unnecessary word.

According to CMI, a headline with eight words performs best. And, once you start writing and brainstorming, eight words can come and go very quickly. To avoid overdoing it, question each word used in your headline and ask whether you can take it out or make it shorter and more concise.

  1. Use the SHINE method.

KissMetrics developed SHINE, an easy-to-remember anagram that acts as a guideline and checklist for developing headlines. I like it because it’s brief, helpful, and something that can easily and quickly be applied every time you write a headline.

  • S – Specificity: Use something concrete and quantifiable.
  • H – Helpfulness: What’s in it for your reader? Does your headline convey that they’ll gain something by reading further?
  • I – Immediacy: Is there any urgency, and does the headline make your prospective reader want to consume the article at that very moment?
  • N – Newsworthiness: They say that to be newsworthy it must be timely and have some sort of shock value. Have your readers already heard your headline before?
  • E – Entertainment: Readers want to connect and be entertained, and they don’t linger around so they can be bored. Convey excitement in your headline.

When pouring so much into creating our stories, we can’t let crappy headlines hold us back. Invest the time and energy into your headlines, and chances are that you’ll see an increased interest in what you have to say and share with the world.


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