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Heads you win - the flex guide to effective headline writing

reading headlines

Headlines may feel like decorative afterthoughts, but they make the difference between someone reading your communications or consigning them to the recycle bin. Newspapers have known this for ever: headlines sell.

Imagine a page or a screen full of text. It has several stories but no headlines; they are clumped together as disparate paragraphs. How do I decide which to read first? Which is the most important? Can I even be bothered to read any? While a good headline is worth its weight in gold, a bad one is worse than none. Here’s our checklist for killer headlines.

• Headlines, like stories, should be about people. Use humans – girls and boys, women and men, wives and husbands, Posh and Becks, me and you.

• The headline shouldn’t commit you or your company to an opinion. Remember to be objective and balanced.

• The headline should be legally safe. It doesn’t matter if your publication is a photocopied sheet of A4 or a 40-page glossy brochure – the laws of defamation, contempt and copyright all apply. You should also make sure your headlines don’t offend on other grounds – they should never be glib or tasteless.

• Headlines should be active. They should tell of people doing things rather than having things done to them. ‘Man bites dog’ rather than ‘Dog bitten by man’.

• Do use verbs and don’t use labels. ‘Carbon emissions reduction programme’ will not set anyone alight, while ‘Wise up and cut the carbon’ is much more punchy.

• Headlines should have impact and immediacy. Use the present or future tense. Deal with news, not history.

• Finally, make sure it works. Headlines can be misinterpreted – it’s snappily known as syntactic ambiguity. Read your headline aloud and make sure it makes sense. The following howlers show just how badly wrong you can go...

bad headline complilation

A version of this article first appeared in the July 2011 edition of New Standard, a brochure on effective writing for business (c) Words Publishing

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