Tricks for crafting the perfect headline or subject line

Grabbing a reader’s attention can be tricky—especially when you’ve only got a few seconds. Here are some tips for hooking distracted audiences.

In Hollywood, it’s the logline. In newsrooms, it’s the headline.

In PR, it’s the email subject line—and first sentence of an email pitch—that can make all the difference when PR pros pitch media outlets, but how can you possibly present the gist of a story in just a few words?

Try borrowing logline/headline strategy from the entertainment and news businesses.

Start with the end in mind

Before a movie script is written–or any scenes are shot—Hollywood producers imagine a movie based on a one-sentence description (the logline) of the story?

Here’s an example of a logline for the 2004 cult hit Napoleon Dynamite from TV Guide:

 

A listless and alienated teenager decides to help his new friend win the class presidency in their small western high school, while he deals with his bizarre family life back home.

Similarly, in newsrooms editors often assign feature articles with enticing headlines—even before journalists are assigned to cover the stories. Just check out this scene from HBO drama series “The Newsroom” in which a reporter tries to boil down what’s most compelling to her cable news audience from a dire but complicated Environmental Protection Agency report.

In the business world, management gurus from Stephen Covey to Tim Ferriss have encouraged us to “start with the end in mind” or “work backwards.” Amazon founder (and coincidently, Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos famously asks employees to start with what they think Amazon customers—and Washington Post readers—want before the employees create anything. The head of Amazon Web Services revealed a few years ago that software programmers are required to write a headline and press release before they even write a line of code for a new product offering.

 

Before you get started

Before you write your subject line and first sentence of your email pitch, there are some things you must know:

  • What specifically the “news” is.
  • What’s your offer? What is it that you are using to entice the reporter to say yes? Is it an exclusive, an in-person interview, an advance copy of a report, etc.?
  • What’s the best vehicle for your story? Is it breaking news, a feature, an opinion piece?
  • What audience does your media contact have? Is what you’re pitching important to them?

Crafting your subject line

Here’s where you copy what the newsroom does and write your headline.

Imagine you work at Apple and you’re pitching reporters on a story ahead of the iPhone X launch.

Here are some ideas you might use for your email subject line:

  • David: Apple’s new face of iPhone will recognize yours
  • New phone for Apple fanboys and -girls: Preview Monday?
  • Exclusive? Jony Ive on new iPhone X, Wed early
  • Exclusive: Heeeeere’s Jony (Ive)!
  • Peek inside Jony Ive’s iPhone X: Tues 2pm?
  • Inside the mind of Ive, iPhone X designer
  • Meet tomorrow for first look at the iPhone X?

Here are some tips for writing a compelling headline/subject line.

  • Be brief. You don’t have much room, time or attention. Keep it short and pithy.
  • Create a sense of urgency. Emphasize time-sensitivity, if it’s important to the pitch.
  • Inspire curiosity. Tease the story. Use words that grab attention. Highlight what is significant.
  • Be useful. If you know your local reporter is writing a piece that requires local input, offer your spokesperson, especially if the reporter is on deadline.
  • Use facts and figures. Support your story with numbers or research data where appropriate.
  • Front-load it. Find a credible way to use a recognizable company or product name (e.g., iPhone, Uber). Place it early in your subject line.
  • Keep it lively. Eliminate (most) adverbs and adjectives. Let nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting.
  • Abbreviate. It’s OK to use common abbreviations in a subject line.
  • Plan for truncation. Expect your subject line to be cut off from the recipient’s full view.
  • Choose when to be boring. Sometimes the obvious just works.

Mistakes to avoid

Don’t get on a journalist’s bad side. Here’s what not to do in a subject line.

  • Don’t start with “Press Release,” “Story Idea,” “Pitch,” or “Interview Opp.” Those end up in the trash.
  • Don’t use all caps.
  • Don’t name drop (unless you can deliver).

How do you write a first sentence that fulfills the promise of your subject line?

Here’s where you emulate Hollywood and use your logline. Write the first sentence (or two) of your email pitch as if it were the lede—minus the puffy adjectives—of a press release. Use words that you imagine the publication itself might use if its own journalists were telling the story.

Here are some techniques to try:

  • Riff on a recent article the journalist wrote, or ride a hot trend to grab attention.
  • Offer an exclusive.
  • Personalize it.
  • Localize it.
  • Make it an invitation.

Here’s what won’t fly:

  • “I hope this email finds you well.” Skip the so-called niceties and get right to the point.
  • Don’t be long-winded. Pare your pitch to two (maximum of three) short, clean paragraphs.
  • Attachments: They can snag your email in the media organization’s spam filter or annoy editors who might be paging through pitches on their cellphones.

What techniques do you use to write effective email subject lines and pitches?

Colleen Martell, CEO and chief strategist of Martell Communications, a Silicon Valley PR firm. A version of this article originally appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists to pitch, build media lists, get press alerts and create coverage reports with social media data.

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Topics: PR

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