Great headline writing in six 'not-so-easy' steps

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I  remember suffering through a college journalism class where the gnarly old professor was a stickler about headlines. He had only two classifications: a headline was "crap" or "great." There was no middle ground.

At the time, I thought the guy was a nut. But now it's obvious that he was right to spend so much time on what seemed to be just a few words at the top of a story.

A headline is what captures attention. It's what pulls people into the copy. It's what creates interest or curiosity. Without a great headline, you might as well not even write the rest of the copy because most people will never read it.

How do you create a "great" headline? Here are six secrets I've learned over the years.

Do your research. I've worked with some ad agencies where I've seen copywriters barely glance at the background information. They skip the facts and start brainstorming concepts and headlines. That is unforgivable. You cannot possibly get to the essence of a product or service unless you are thoroughly familiar with what you're selling. I often spend half my project time on background and research. My best ideas come from these resources.

Look for the one big idea. Most products or services, if they are well conceived, will have at least one thing that sets them apart from the competition. You can call it the unique selling proposition or the primary benefit. I call it the big idea. You may have a dozen great benefits, but until you can find that one thing that it unique, you won't have a good headline.

Write lots and lots of headlines. When it comes to headlines, quantity and quality are often closely related. That's because if you really want to hit upon that one great headline, you'll need to write a lot of bad headlines. It's a little like fishing. Sometimes you have to sit in the boat all day, pulling up old boots and skimpy fish, before you hook that prize-winning trout.

Deliver a complete message. Research shows that many people don't read all of the words before they make a decision about whether they'll spend time with an ad. Generally, they make that decision based on what the headline says. So your headline must deliver a message that is complete. Show-off headlines, such as "Cool!" or "Hmmmmm," both of which I've seen in real ads, say nothing and require reading the copy to make sense of them. This lowers your chances of success. A headline such as "Own one of these leather-bound books for only $4.95" provides information you can immediately understand.

Be specific. Too many headlines offer up stale platitudes, such as "Save time and money with this new home cleaning gadget!" What exactly does that mean? Add some specificity and watch how this headline comes to life: "Frustrated bartender develops incredible device to clean and disinfect your entire home." A headline like that suggests there's a story to be told, and you want to know what it is. Specifics sell.

Be clear. If there's one rule that should never be broken, it's this one. Clarity is the No. 1 objective of any headline. In fact, it's the primary objective of all copy. If your reader doesn't instantly and effortlessly understand what you're talking about, you won't make a sale. To create a clear headline, you should avoid trying to impress people with your wordcraft and simply find a way to express your big idea in the most direct way possible. Many great headlines have little artifice: "Pure silk blouses 30% off"… "Create your own cards, posters and banners in minutes! …" "How to stop smoking in 30 days or your money back."

Remember, no one gets up in the morning planning to read your ads. You have to stop them during a busy day and encourage them to spend a few minutes reading about a certain product or service. Here are a few more examples:

• Now! Moonlight Your Way to a Million Dollars.

• How to do Central America on $17 a day.

• Do You Make These Six Common Mistakes On Your Taxes?

• The 20 Most Important Steps You Can Take to Live Longer.

• Small Company's New Golf Ball Flies Too Far; Could Obsolete Many Golf Courses

My tough-as-nails journalism professor probably didn't care much for advertising, but I think he would admire the skill that went into headlines like these. n

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