The verb is the story

8 ways to activate news release headlines

When it comes to headlines, The New York Times’ leap into action: People, places and things arrest, attack, confront, explode, fight, grow, spread, struggle and work.

The verb is the story

Away we go A story is a verb, not a noun. Something should be happening here. Use dynamic verbs in press release headlines. Image by Sergio Rao

News release headlines, on the other hand, are far less active. There, organizations tend to announce, launch and report.

“A story is a verb, not a noun,” writes Byron Dobell, former editor of Esquire. Something should be happening here.

If the verb is the story, then release headlines tell the same story over and over again. And it’s not a very compelling tale.

Write like the Times.

We recently analyzed the verbs in 100 PR Newswire headlines and compared them to the verbs in 100 headlines from a recent issue of The New York Times. (We skipped the sports pages.)

Here are tips for writing active headlines to steal from the Times:

1. Tell the story.

Headlines should tell the story; they shouldn’t just tell about the story. Instead of, for instance, announcing in a headline that you’re announcing something, just announce it.

Instead of:

Fortescue Announces Termination With Respect To Its Invitations To Tender For Sale In Exchange For Cash Certain Of Its Debt Securities


Fortescue Terminates Invitations To Tender For Sale In Exchange For Cash Certain Of Its Debt Securities

Instead of:

Harwood Feffer LLP Announces Investigation of Resonant, Inc.


Harwood Feffer LLP To Investigate Resonant, Inc.

Instead of:

New Source Energy Partners L.P. Announces Timing of Fourth Quarter and Year-End 2014 Financial Results and Conference Call


New Source Energy Partners L.P. To Hold Fourth Quarter and Year-End 2014 Financial Results and Conference Call on March 19

Terminates, investigates and holds are stronger verbs than “announced.” And they tell the story instead of telling about the story.

2. Use sexy verbs.

If the verb is the story, then the sexier the verb, the sexier the story. That’s why I love the cheeky verb in this headline, from Vitaminwater:

“Spank those naughty little oxidants.”

I myself am trying to get the verb spank into one of my release headlines. Any suggestions?

3. Think action.

Use athletic verbs — those that show that things are happenin’ at your organization. Model the strong verbs in these two Wall Street Journal heads:

Stocks Roar Back Late in Day
Medicare Flip-Flop Roils Elderly

4. Avoid ‘PR verbs.’

Sadly, the verbs we use most often in press releases are not sexy or athletic.

We are sorry to announce that announces heads that list. According to Schwartz MSL analysis of 16,000 Business Wire releases, the action words PR pros use most often are:

  • Announces: 13.7% of the time
  • Launches: 2.4%
  • Partners: 1.8%

What? No introduces?

Oh, well. At least announces, launches and partners are active verbs, written in the present tense.

5. Write in the active voice.

Enough said.

6. Write in the present or future tense.

Make your story immediate instead of historic.

7. Don’t bury the verb.

Is your verb the second or third word in the headline? Or is it buried behind a nine-word product name or the names of each of your company’s 17 project partners?

Bury the verb, and you bury the story.

8. Don’t drop the verb.

Chris Smith, the brilliant editing guru at Entergy Corp., reminds us — in haiku, no less — of what happens when we neglect our headline verbs:

Readers stayed away.
Did your headline have a verb?
I didn’t think so.

So for gosh sakes, don’t commit verbicide. These headlines got passed through the de-verb-o-rizer a few times before publication:

17th Edition of the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Awards
Air Pollution Control Equipment: Technologies and Global Markets
Carbon Capture, Utilization & Storage Technologies
Global Markets and Technologies for Medical Lasers
Drug Discovery Technologies, BCC Research

In fact, one in 10 of the news release headlines we reviewed were label heads. Shockingly, 13% of the Times heads were, too.

You can do better: Don’t let your verb go missing in action.

Get read. Get shared. Choose verbs.

One side benefit to boosting your verbs: Verbs get shared more often than nouns, adjectives and adverbs, according to HubSpot viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella.

He analyzed Facebook data to study the relationship between parts of speech and Facebook sharing. One finding: Verbs get shared more often on average than any other kind of word.

Make sure your headline is worth reading and sharing: Focus on the verb.

  • Write Hot Releases

    Tap current best practices, from lead to boilerplate

    Prose is architecture, Ernest Hemingway famously said. It’s not interior design.

    Write hot releases: Tap current best practices, from lead to boilerplate

    Are you building a compelling foundation for your PR pieces? Or are you still using structural techniques you learned when you were 19?

    Organize PR pieces to grab reader attention, keep it for the long haul and leave a lasting impression.

    At NOT Your Father’s News Release — our two-day hands-on PR-writing master class on Sept. 6-7 in Atlanta — you’ll learn how to organize PR pieces to grab reader attention, keep it for the long haul and leave a lasting impression. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Decide between triangles, boxes or lists: Choose a structure that increases readership, engagement and sharing. (Hint: The structure you’re using now is probably doing the opposite.)
    • Steal a trick from The New York Times: Trade in your bloated fact packs for snappy synthesis leads.
    • Build a better benefits lead with our fill-in-the-blanks approach.
    • Avoid PR 101 leads: Still stuffing all those W’s and the H into the first paragraph? Still writing “XYZ Company today announces that …”? It’s time to move on to a more effective approach.
    • Beat the boilerplate blues: What’s really supposed to go into these things?

Share your most active headline.


2 Responses to “The verb is the story”
  1. How about “Spank those nouns into submission?”

  2. annwylie says:

    #Love! Wish I’d thought of that for the headline!

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