The 4 essential elements of reader-grabbing headlines

Painting a vivid picture that offers your audience a desired scenario will seize their attention and carry them along on your journey. But wait—there’s more! Look inside for other secrets…

Reader-grabbing headlines

If you write a bad headline, you fail.

Consider this copywriting quote (one of the smartest you’ll ever read):

“No sentence can be effective if it contains facts alone. It must also contain emotion, image, logic and promise.”—Eugene Schwartz

Headlines are sentences, too, of course—the most important sentences there are.

If you write a bad headline—or book title or email subject line or anything else the audience is meant to consume first—nobody will care enough to read the rest of your sentences. Nobody will give a damn.

Don’t write headlines that are flat, invisible, like white paper on a white desk. Write compelling headlines that stand out—headlines that contain emotion, imagery, logic and promise.

Here are the key attributes that make any headline pop. Your headline should be:

1. Emotional

Make it dramatic, like this classic headline by John Caples:

“They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano—But When I Started to Play!”

This is among the most successful headlines of the 20th century, because it tells a story—or at least the beginning of one.

Dramatizing the claim—or its result—is storytelling, pure and simple. It’s making the prospect visualize a clear narrative in as few words as possible. More specifically, it’s a narrative she can relate to, one she understands on a visceral level.

That’s compelling.

2. Vivid

Make it appeal to the senses, like this headline about apples:

“Tastes Like You Just Picked It!”

Sensitizing the claim by making the prospect feel it, smell it, touch it, see it or hear it will transport the prospect to a moment, consciously or otherwise.

In the case of this headline, it’s that moment when you’re hungry and you bite into a fresh apple—a delicious, fresh apple—and you think, I can’t wait to take another bite.

That’s compelling.

3. Logical

Make it a question, like this headline by Gary Bencivenga:

“Has This Man Really Discovered the Secret of Inevitable Wealth?”

In his book “Enlightened Leadership,” Ed Oakley writes, “Nothing redirects people’s thinking better than a well-phrased question.”

He’s right, of course. A good question can be provocative, even profound to a prospect on the cusp of a decision, especially if she has at one point asked herself the same question.

That’s compelling.

4. Hopeful

Make it inspirational, like this old headline from a Rolls Royce ad:

“To The Man Who Is Afraid To Let His Dreams Come True”

This ad was featured in Julian Watkins book “The 100 Greatest Advertisements,” because despite being released during the Great Depression, it sold more cars than any other Rolls Royce ad in history.

An inspirational headline can challenge any limiting beliefs the prospect may have, forcing her to think deeply and critically about what she wants.

Life, after all, is a constant battle between what we want and what others expect of us. It’s a perennial, ubiquitous fight that transcends generations and cultures.

If appropriate, write a headline that helps the self win that fight. Write a headline that bolsters hope.

That’s compelling.

But wait, there’s more!

There are other ways to write a compelling headline. Plenty of ways.

For example, you can make it:

  • Metaphorical (e.g., “Banishes Acne!”)
  • Inherently valuable (e.g., “What Everybody Ought to Know About the Stock Market”)
  • Address the prospect (e.g., “To People Who Want to Write But Can’t Get Started”)
  • Too good to be true; hyperbolic (e.g., “Don’t write another headline before reading this”)

These are all proven angles. They’ve stood the test of time.

Now, they’re yours for the taking.

Take them.

Eddie Shleyner is senior copywriting manager for G2 Crowd. A version of this post first appeared on Very Good Copy.

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