December 18, 2017

Secrets for successful subheads

Keep readers reading, skimmers scanning

What if I told you there was a magic wand that kept readers reading and skimmers scanning — even after their attention begins to wane?

Secrets for successful subheads

Heads up on subheads Subheads can communicate your key messages even to nonreaders. Image by Monik Markus

Friends, there is such a tool, and it’s called a subhead. Problem is, most communicators leave this essential element out of their messages. Many others write subheads that suck.

So why subheads? And how can you write compelling ones?

Why subheads?

Subheads are those short headings that appear within the body copy. For example, in this piece, “Why subheads?” is a subhead. “Keep readers reading, skimmers scanning” is known as the deck.

Subheads can help you:

  • Keep readers reading. “Subheads increased reading for skimmers and for those whose attention was beginning to wane,” according to The Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack III study.
  • Communicate to nonreaders. Well-written subheads can convey your key ideas to flippers, skimmers and others who won’t read your paragraphs, no matter what.
  • Draw readers in. A compelling subhead can turn skimmers into readers.
  • Break copy up. Good subheads break copy up into accessible, bite-sized chunks. And when your message looks easier to read, more people will read it.
  • Make your message more memorable. “A writer who knows the big parts can name them for the reader” with subheads, writes Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at The Poynter Institute. “The reader who sees the big parts is more likely to remember the whole story.”

Write subheads that don’t suck.

So how can you write subheads that draw people in, keep readers reading and summarize your key ideas for skimmers?

1. Make thinking visual. Subheads show the architecture of your piece. So if you created a traditional outline for your message, what would your topics I, II and III be? Label those parts with subheads.

Then add one more subhead to separate the body of your message from its conclusion. If your story has three parts, you should have four subheads.

2. Say something with subheads. Scanners should be able to learn your key ideas just by reading your subheads. So write robust subheads that, taken together, communicate the gist of your message.

3. Avoid label subheads. Don’t just label a section of your copy with the topic: “Mortgage services,” for instance. Tell the reader something: What about mortgage services?

If your subheads say “Problem,” “Solution” and “Result,” for instance, you’re essentially telling readers, “read below to find out what the problem, solution and results are.”

That’s not scanning, that’s reading! Instead of trying to force skimmers to read, explain the problem, solution and results in the subheads themselves.

4. Answer, don’t just ask, questions. If you raise a question in the subhead, answer it in display copy — a bold-faced lead-in, highlighted key words or a bulleted list, maybe.

Our first subhead in this story asks, “Why subheads?” for instance. The bold-faced lead-ins in the bulleted list below answer that question.

5. Keep subheads short. Aim for eight words or less. That’s the number of words readers can get at a glance, according to American Press Institute research.

And limit subheads to one line. Longer, and they’ll start looking like text, not display copy. And then you’ll lose the attention-grabbing power of subheads.

Don’t drop the subheads.

Finally, don’t drop the subheads. It’s a poor communicator who ignores this power tool.

  • Lift Your Ideas Off the Page or Screen

    Sixty percent of your audience members aren’t reading your copy, according to estimates by professors at the University of Missouri. So how can you craft communications that reach nonreaders?

    Use your display copy — headlines, decks and subheads, for instance — to pull readers into your copy, make your piece more inviting and even communicate to flippers and skimmers.

    Catch Your Readers - Ann Wylie's persuasive-writing workshop in Denver on May 1-2, 2018At Catch Your Readers — a two-day Master Class on May 1-2, 2018 in Denver — we'll debunk destructive writing myths. You'll leave with scientific, proven-in-the-lab approaches for getting people to pay attention to, understand, remember and act on your messages.

    • Reach “readers” who spend only two minutes — or even just 10 seconds — with your piece.
    • Avoid dropping the piece of display copy that 95% of people read — but that many communicators forget.
    • Run a simple test on your message to ensure that even folks who will not read your message no matter how well you write it still get your key ideas.
    • Make your copy 47% more usable by adding a few simple elements.
    • Pass the Palm Test to make your message look easier to read. Because if it looks easier to read, more people will read it.

    Learn more about the Master Class.

    Register for Catch Your Readers - Ann Wylie's persuasive-writing workshop in Denver on May 1-2, 2018


    Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

    Would you like to hold an in-house Catch Your Readers workshop? Contact Ann directly.

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