A headline (or title) is the first thing that people see when they look at your content, and it acts as the salesman for your content on social media, search engines, or your subscriber’s inbox. A compelling headline gives your audience a reason to come in off the metaphorical street to read more, watch more, or listen more to what you have to say. Your headline can make or break anything you create.
Which Types of Headlines Work?
We live in a noisy, distracting world, surrounded by thousands of notifications, ads, and other demands for our attention each waking moment of the day. You’ve spent too much time creating your content to throw it into the mix and just hope that people read it. So how do you make sure they do?
Use your headline to spark one of two things:
The first step to crafting a compelling headline is making sure that your headline either sparks clarity or curiosity—not both.
After all, your headline is only a few words long and gets confusing if you try to tell people what happened and why they should care at the same time. If you choose clarity, take the most direct path to the truth that your audience already cares about. Famous examples include:
- Hitler is Dead
- Man Walks On The Moon
- Nixon Resigns! Ford Will Become President at Noon
- Lincoln Shot, Condition Considered Hopeless
- Not Guilty! Sensational OJ Verdict
Your clarity headline doesn’t need to be about a global, worldwide interest, but something your audience deeply cares about. This is where “How to” headlines fit, and they work phenomenally well (as long as you provide a clear-to-follow how-to solution). If you choose curiosity, your goal is to create a burning question in the mind of your reader. Famous examples include:
- Proof: Doctors Are More Dangerous Than Guns
- Confessions of a Disbarred Judge
- An Open Letter to Every Overweight Person in Portland
- Is the Life of a Child Worth a $1 to You?
- What Never to Eat on an Airplane
- They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano—But When I Started to Play!
A curiosity headline is definitely more indirect than a clarity headline, so these are especially helpful when you want to draw readers into a topic they would not normally care about. Curiosity headlines are incredibly effective, but they can also be risky. Once you’ve created a burning question, you need to answer it well enough to satisfy the curiosity of your audience. If you do, they’ll love you for it! If you don’t, the “burning” question may turn into scorching and you’ll feel the heat.
This is where “clickbait” headlines come from, where a clever writer creates a burning question that implies greater importance than it deserves. Don’t do that. If people aren’t satisfied with your content, you’ve failed. Yes, even if you answered a curiosity-inducing clickbait headline. Upworthy and Buzzfeed are notorious for committing this crime, with headlines like:
- He Changed His Name For a Horrible Reason. Now He's Telling Us Why
- 28 Ingenious Things For Your Dog You Had No Idea You Needed
- We Didn't Believe It. So We Fact-Checked It (Twice). Now Let's Talk About How To Take It Worldwide.
Your headline is the most important part of any piece of content—except for everything else. A compelling headline gets people to pay attention, but then you need to deliver the goods.