“Never judge a book by its cover.” It’s a saying. It’s a crazy saying. It’s crazy because, until you’ve read it, what else are you supposed to judge a book by? Most of us never have to write something that will come with a dust cover, but we face the same challenge as the book designer – how do you get someone to open up what you’ve sent them?
And once someone has agreed to open it, how can we make sure they get beyond the first sentence? How can we make sure that even a quick glance is useful for them? How can we convert a quick glance into five minutes of their precious time?
Titles and headings are two of the arrows in your quiver. Here are some simple ways to make sure they both hit home.
What’s your offer? Is it more interesting than what the next person wants to bore me about? Combine a few of these techniques to pique my interest and make me click.
1. Ask a question
It’s the oldest technique in town. The incomplete nature of a question – it’s only completed once answered – is a tried and tested way of getting people to open things up. Try and ask a question that’s about your reader, not about you.
“Are loss of taste and smell key coronavirus symptoms?” (BBC website, 1/4/20)
2. Keep it short
Grammar rules don’t apply to titles – there’s no full stop, so it isn’t a sentence. Choose short phrases, short words and cut fat. If cutting something doesn’t change the impact or the meaning, cut it.
“Cheap and easy ways to cook straight from the tin” (BBC website, 1/4/20)
3. Use emotional and distinctive adjectives and adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs are often used in a way that adds little to what we write – ‘she wept sadly’ doesn’t need the word ‘sadly’. How else do you weep? Now, if she wept ‘manically’ that would add to the picture. It’s an intriguing and unexpected word in this context and it grabs attention.
So choose adjectives and adverbs that work hard. If you’re showing me a way of doing something, telling me it’s ‘effortless’, ‘free’, ‘instant’ or ‘essential’ is interesting and attractive. But adjectives like ‘great’ or ‘effective’ are less compelling. Why would you show me a way of doing something that isn’t effective? They’re only one step up from ‘nice’.
“James Bond – the ultimate celebration” (Empire, April 2020)
4. Make a bold statement – boldly
I want to know you have something to say that I haven’t heard before. So offering ‘an update on…’ or ‘a review of…’ or ‘some recent developments in the world of…’ just won’t cut it. It’s the language of the monthly newsletter and no one ever got excited about those (except the printer). So look to say something unexpected, useful, even controversial about the subject.
Once you’ve found your bold statement, make sure you don’t water it down. I promised you 7 secrets that ‘will’ increase your readership’. I didn’t say ‘may’ or ‘if applied correctly, have the potential to…’. I’m not suggesting that you write titles that are actionable, but ‘You can make your pension work harder for you’ is stronger than ‘You may be able to make your pension perform better over the long term’.
“Even the US is doing more Coronavirus tests than the UK. Here are the reasons why.” (Buzzfeed website, 1/4/20)
5. Hypnotise people with a numbered list
A numbered list is second only to ‘ask a question’ when it comes to tried and tested techniques. It’s a sure-fire way to get people clicking through – we’ve all stayed up until the wee small hours to find out whether Fawlty Towers is number one in the list of Britain’s favourite sit-coms. We can’t resist a list.
By the way, research suggests that, even for small lists, figures are more effective than words – so offer 7 secrets, not seven. Ignore your brand guidelines – trust the science.
“10 simple ways to get your garden ready for summer” (BBC website, 1/4/20)
6. Solve your reader’s problem
If I have a headache, a title like ‘3 Ways to get rid of a headache’ is more likely to make me read your article, than ‘the latest thinking about headaches, their causes and cures’. I’m not interested in headaches, but in how to get rid of them.
“22 top tips to help you through lockdown” (BBC website, 1/4/20)
7. Use ‘why’ and ‘how’
These are words that tell me you’re going to reveal something. “How to make sure people read what you write” would have a good chance of grabbing me – especially if it’s about solving my problem. If you combine ‘why’ with a bold and provocative statement, it can work really hard – ‘why no one reads what you write’.
“How a video game led to one man working for NASA” (BBC website, 1/4/20)
Okay, so you’ve got their attention with a good title. What about the headings and subheadings that sit below it? These are the things that can make your reader’s journey easy and valuable. They can make sure they stay the distance.
1. Break things up into sections and give each section a heading
Even if you’re reading a book that you absolutely love, you get a little moment of elation when you turn the page to discover that the chapter ends in three lines time and the next page is blank. These open spaces make things seem less daunting. They give the reader breathing space.
So don’t fill your reader’s brains with big chunks of copy. Look to break things up into short, meaningful sections. Then make sure that each section has a heading or subheading that sets the reader up for it. It’s not a mystery novel, so you don’t have to reveal things slowly. This also gives you a handy checker – does what sits under the heading belong there or did you stray off topic? If you did, edit!
By the way, when you’re breaking things up, avoid the trap of making an article just a series of individual sentences, each one purporting to be a paragraph. Lots of online professional publications do this and it can make your argument clunky and difficult to follow.
2. Use repeated language patterns to create unity
When things follow a pattern, they seem logical and reassuring. So if you have a series of headings and subheadings, try and make them follow the same pattern and structure. If your first heading is ‘why we grow grapes’, a second heading that says ‘how we grow grapes’ is more effective than one that says ‘There are different ways to grow grapes’.
3. Make the headings tell the story on their own
When we’re writing a letter that’s explaining something important to investors, scheme members or patients, we make sure that, even if they just read the headings, they still learn something. Headings are the spine of the whole document.
- You told us you want to retire on 5th June
- To make sure we start paying your pension on time, please fill in this form
- Send your form to us by 5th May
- Call us on 01234 567890 if you have any questions
Using these sort of headings, can also help you order your thoughts and make sure you’re sticking to the point – the heading is about the date they want to retire, so this isn’t the time to talk about the deadline for sending in the form.
4. Don’t swap clarity for clever
Puns, jokes and intriguing metaphors are great. They can make a reader like you. But if you’re explaining something that the reader may be unfamiliar with, headings need to help them find their way, move forward and even come back to something later.
Of course, the best tip of all is to steal! Steal techniques from magazine publishers, online media companies and advertisers. These are people whose very livelihood depends on people biting at their bait.
Other things you might like
7 tips for keeping your team together – and remote
Video: Why designing for excluded groups makes things better for everyone.
What growing anxiety means for financial services.