Seven ways to polish your traditional headlines
Here’s a quick tip for making more of your news headlines: Make sure you’re telling the story and not just telling about the story.
Your news headline should communicate the gist of your message. That way, readers can understand your point, even if they don’t read the article.
|Instead of telling about the story …||… tell the story|
|Moves and milestones||Phil Smith named product manager, Program Development|
|Success stories||E-commerce group sells out at Eurocomm trade show|
|Benefits changes announced||Hallmark doubles profit-sharing contribution|
|New survey tracks industry trends||More communicators measuring ROI, survey says|
Here are seven other steps for making your news headline more compelling:
1. Make sure it’s news.
If your story covers breaking information, a news head may be your best bet. If you’re just getting around to confirming information that your readers got six weeks ago, you need a different approach.
Don’t get me started on editors who try to pass off second-day (or second-month) information as news. Just leave it at this: If you’re in the business of “announcing” ancient information, you’ll soon convince readers that the folks in communications are the last to get the word about your organization’s updates.
2. Answer the question, “What happened?”
That, after all, is the point of a news headline.
3. Make a single point.
Here’s a quick test to run on your headline: Count its commas, semicolons, dashes and other punctuation. That punctuation can be a clue that you’re trying to cover too many ideas in your headline.
Tempted to write headlines like these?
Copper Wire Theft Rising in XYZ Service Territory; Thefts Pose a Safety, Reliability Threat
XYZ Company Plans Expansion of its Texas Eastern System; Shippers Sign Long-Term Transportation Contracts to Serve Northeast Markets
New California law bans home disposal of cell phones and common batteries; residents can drop off cell phones and dead batteries at XYZ Company stores
Move everything after the semicolon into the deck, aka the one-sentence summary under the headline.
4. Make it factual and free of hype.
On my desk is a New Yorker cartoon where a CEO is talking to his PR executive. “Here it is, the plain, unvarnished truth,” the CEO says. “Varnish it.”
I advise you to skip the varnish. Cut phrases that sound anything like these:
- “Expands leadership”
- “Sets major milestone”
- “In a move that sets the next industry milestone and reinforces its leadership position … “
Your news headline should sound journalistic, not like marketing hype.
5. Use dynamic verbs.
A story is a verb, not a noun, as one of the former editors of The New York Times says. That means the verb is the story. So forget lame verbs like launches, introduces and announces.
And for gosh sakes, don’t leave the verb out altogether. Label headlines are the No. 1 problem I see when reviewing corporate headlines to customize my in-house writing workshops.
6. Keep it short.
Keep your news head to eight words max. That’s the number people can understand at a glance, according to research by The American Press Institute.
This headline, for instance, tells the story in just six words, plus a 13-word deck:
IRS Introduces New, Paperless Tax Filing
TeleFile allows taxpayers to file by phone — in as little as 10 minutes
At 16 words, this one’s harder to process:
XYZ Company Donates $80,000 to The Nature Conservancy for Shareholders Choosing Paperless Delivery of Annual Report
The solution: Move some of the headline into the deck. That’s what that second level of headline is for.
Use consistent capitalization.
Choose either sentence-structure capitalization or title capitalization. Which style is best for your organization?
- Is your organization more informal, like USA Today, which uses sentence-structure capitalization?
- Or Are You More Formal, like The New York Times, which Capitalizes the First Letter in Most Words in the Headline?
Whichever you choose, stick with it. Keep your headline style consistent.