Trouble_girl3I’m re-publishing this post for Practical Tactical Tuesday because I like it and because very little is more practical than “How To” advice on writing better headlines.

Hope you enjoy:

My confession? Even though my copy always had great headlines, my blog posts frequently didn’t.

I wasn’t (yet) struck by the need for trouble – and without a hint of taboo, or a challenge to the norm, or a perceived conflict, or at the very least a paradox, most headlines just never get off the ground.

Here’s why there has to be a sense of trouble living at the heart of your headline:

Your headline needs to hook the reader into reading your “story,” and stories are created by and live off of conflict. In fact, another phrase for trouble is “story appeal.”

Your goal: entice the reader with a hint of conflict, and then she “has” to click through so she can know how the conflict is resolved and what kind of transformation takes place as a result.

4 Ways to Create Conflict in your Headlines:

Technique #1 – Refer to an unseen action or back-story that hints at, or includes, trouble

This one is a favorite of novelists and short story writers.  Here’s a classic opening sentence from Farenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.”  Whoah, Nelly, right?  Who is burning what and why are they taking so much pleasure in it?  That enjoyment reeks of trouble, because the only things normal people take pleasure in burning are cigars and red fire ant mounds.  And some might question the fire ant part 😉

So here are some examples of Copyblogger and Wonderbranding* headlines that use this technique

Technique # 2 – Use paradox, a challenge to expectations, and “negative” promises

With this technique the trouble involves conflicting ideas in the mind of your reader.  You’re challenging how they normally see or think of the world, or at least your blogging topic.  Break reader’s guessing mechanism to shake them awake.  Create the itch to know and to reconcile the incongruent by following the example of these great headlines:

Technique # 3 – Confront and offer to explain or fix your readers’ afflictions

The home of the “Do you make these mistakes in English” and the “How to” class of headlines, both of which are usually sure-fire templates.  The key to this technique is to hone in on a genuine, sleep-killing fear or problem plaguing your readership – and of course to have an explanation or solution.  “Why No One Links to Your Best Posts (And What to Do About It)” is a perfect example of that.

This category is straightforward enough that I’m canning the comments after the examples, OK?

Technique #4 – Leave the trouble implied by your promised benefit

All positive headlines fall into this category.  But positive headlines have to at least imply and address a real audience need, right?  There has to be some dissatisfaction within your reader for them to see the appeal in the benefit.  This one is great when a direct statement of the problem might be insulting.  Take the headline, “Four Ways to Be More Interesting” for example; do you really want a headline that asks “Do people find you boring?

Again, here are a few examples:

While the idea of trouble living at the heart of story is a universal observation, my classification of techniques is largely personal and certainly not exhaustive, so I’d love to know what you think. If you see that I missed a category, or have some great examples of your own to share, please feel free to comment.

* I chose to use a lot of Copyblogger examples because: a) Copyblogger is well known both for publishing great headlines, and for offering awesome “how-to write headlines” content; and b) it’s easier to collect headlines from one, rich source than to scour the blogosphere looking for examples.  Other source material and headlines were also taken from Wonderbranding, Men With Pens, PsychotacticsGet Elastic, and Roy Williams’ Monday Morning Memo.  All readers are welcome to post additional examples in the comments.

Comments

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  7. Mike Slover on 03.21.2012

    Jeff, my yahoo home page is excellent at this, so excellent that just this morning I have decided to pull the plug and implement a new home page. You see the problem is I use the net A LOT and every time I go to look something up I get sidetracked by the headlines that beg me to click to find out the story conflict. I wind up forgetting what I logged on to do so I’m out! I’m making polkadancing.com my new home page,
    Mike
    Mike Slover´s last blog post ..The Silver Bullet of Advertising

  8. Jon on 03.21.2012

    I like this one i found in my in box today:
    Why the world needs more Christians who put themselves first.

    http://sammyadebiyi.com/blogs/sammy-adebiyi/why-world-needs-more-christians-who-put-themselves-first

  9. Jeff on 03.21.2012

    Mike & Jon,

    Thanks for the comments. Seems like Yahoo was a victim of its own headline sucess : )

    And, yeah, Christians who put themselves first certainly violates a bit of common perception, definitely piqued my curiosity!

    – Jeff

  10. JC Whitted on 03.21.2012

    In a recent column you inspired me to write a headline and focus my entire pitch for this book on a story that, I think, lines up nicely with this topic:

    How a little boy in Wyoming launched a crusade against funeral home ripoffs.

    http://www.noahagoodman.com/outsidethebook/

    Here’s the link to the working site.

    Thanks, JC

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