How to write headlines that repel readers

There’s an art to crafting a mundane headline, but think of the rewards: Being ignored, getting your pitch immediately deleted, maybe even permanent relegation to the elite Blocked Senders List!

Hey, you! Yes, you—the internal communications writer with that sullen look on your face because the guys in the business don’t respect your expertise. Were these headlines yours?

  • Enabling talent

  • Developing the new portal
  • Bringing information to life
  • Celebrating success!
  • Supporting Cancer Research
  • Delivering an outstanding experience
  • Committing ourselves

(Groans. Rolls eyes. Flops tongue out and makes wrist-slashing motion in attempt to capture the suicidal effects of intense boredom.)

Well, at least you got a reaction out of me. Which is more than can be said of those poor saps you’re employed to “engage” with crap like this.

What were you thinking when you wrote them? Were you thinking when you wrote them?

Did you actually write them? Or did you just recycle them from last month’s edition of Bulletin from the Blokes Who Pay Your Wages? Or maybe you pushed a selection of the corporate lexicon’s greatest hits into the internal communications sausage-making machine and set the button to “bland”?

The setting that takes your firm’s most overused verbs (enable, deliver, commit etc) and puts -ing at the end of them.

Yes, notice that ubiquitous -ing form. Known by those with a more expensive education than mine as a gerund. Known by me as a verb behaving like a noun. Known by you as a doing word pretending to be a person-place-or-thing word.

Don’t try to argue your -ing word is really a present participle and therefore a dynamic, actiony verb. Because I can’t see anyone specific doing any delivering, enabling, committing, etc. in those headlines.

What you really wanted to say was the enablement of talent, the celebration of success, the delivery of an outstanding experience and so on. But that’s not how the corporate formula goes, is it?

Besides, I know you feel more comfortable with nouns. All corporate types feel more comfortable with nouns. I’ve come across too many platforms for the delivery of excellence and frameworks for the execution of solutions to believe otherwise.

So here’s a suggestion: Stop writing headlines on autopilot, and start learning from the professionals. Here’s a selection of today’s most-read articles on some UK news sites:

  • Shop sells breast milk ice cream (BBC)

  • Fox lived in the Shard skyscraper (BBC)
  • I see my girlfriend just once a fortnight but she refuses to have sex as soon as I arrive (Guardian)
  • Fox News boss persuaded fellow executive to ‘lie’ to federal investigators (Guardian)
  • NZ earthquake latest: TV presenters perish (Times)
  • Celebrity Watch: Top Gear, I’m not taking it any more (Times)
  • Saudi ‘Royal gift’ fails to woo activists (Financial Times)
  • Nervous China puts security apparatus into overdrive (Financial Times)
  • Crude prices slip, allowing stocks to recover (Financial Times)
  • Libyan uprising closes round Tripoli (Financial Times)

Notice how there’s not a single -ing word in sight. Instead we have all those lovely, active, present tense verbs doing most of the work: sells, refuses, perish, slip, closes and so on.

See, too, how every headline gives a clear idea of what the story’s about, compelling you to learn more. No vague statements about commitment, success or enablement.

(Thanks for coming back to me after checking out that story on the breast milk, by the way.)

So next time you’re writing a headline, try to steer clear of those -ing words—they’re a sure sign you’re lapsing into lazy ways and drawing on your trusty old collection of corporate clichés.

And give me a reason to read on by telling me what to expect. You never know, those guys in the business might start to respect you more if you start compelling people to actually read your stuff. Of course, the problem could lie with the dullness of the story itself—but that’s for another time.

Now, I know you’re desperate to find out more about that guy with the girlfriend, so I’ll leave it there.

P.S. The only one of your headlines I’m vaguely intrigued by is Committing ourselves. But not, I suspect, for the reason you intended.

Clare Lynch is chief business writer and trainer at Doris and Bertie, a U.K. communications agency that helps businesspeople ditch corporate-speak and talk like human beings. Follow her on Twitter @goodcopybadcopy.

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