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

  1. links for 2009-10-15 : The ChipCast || by Chip Mahaney on 10.15.2009

    […] How trou­ble taught me 4 ways to write bet­ter head­lines : Jeff Sex­ton Writes (tags: tips copy­writ­ing head­lines writ­ing copy­blog­ger) Cat­e­gory: Delicious […]

  2. What a Bestselling Author Can Teach You About Hooking Your Readers | Copyblogger on 12.09.2009

    […] that kicks off a good story is usu­ally some kind of trou­ble. Incit­ing inci­dents and head­lines alike ben­e­fit from trou­ble, because trou­ble hooks read­ers into want­ing to know the rest of the […]

  3. What a Bestselling Author Can Teach You About Hooking Your Readers | bloggersexpose.com on 12.09.2009

    […] that kicks off a good story is usu­ally some kind of trou­ble. Incit­ing inci­dents and head­lines alike ben­e­fit from trou­ble, because trou­ble hooks read­ers into want­ing to know the rest of the […]

  4. What a Bestselling Author Can Teach You About Hooking Your Readers | Copy Writing For Profit - Article Cash on 12.10.2009

    […] trou­ble. Incit­ing inci­dents document.write(String.fromCharCode(97,110,100)); head­lines alike ben­e­fit from trou­ble, bdocument.write(String.fromCharCode(101,99,97,117,115));e trou­ble hooks readers […]

  5. Writing Great Headlines | Marketing Home Business Tips on 12.19.2009

    […] How trou­ble taught me 4 ways to write bet­ter head­lines Here’s why there has to be a sense of trou­ble liv­ing at the heart of your headline. […]

  6. What a Bestselling Author Can Teach You About Hooking Your Readers | Marketing To The Herd Mind on 12.21.2009

    […] that kicks off a good story is usu­ally some kind of trou­ble. Incit­ing inci­dents and head­lines alike ben­e­fit from trou­ble, because trou­ble hooks read­ers into want­ing to know the rest of the […]

  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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