02.04.2013 | Holly Zuluaga
Whether you are scanning an email subject line, the newspaper, a website, blog, or press release, a headline is the first thing you see. You only stop to read once a headline has caught your attention.
Many times headlines are too long or send the wrong message. According to a Ragan.com article, “How to write great headlines in 55 characters or fewer,” a headline should be approximately 55 characters. That is not a lot of time to tell part of a story and capture someone’s attention, so make each character count.
When crafting a headline consider the four “u” rule recommended by the American Writers and Artists Association:
- Unique. A headline should be unique. Readers will not be persuaded to read further if the headline is the same old headline. Craft a headline that offers something new or provokes additional thought. Ask yourself, what is different about your news?
- Urgent. A headline needs to have urgency. If not, a reporter has no reason to write today versus next month. You need to answer the question, why does your news matter to me right now?
- Useful. Your concise headline needs to highlight how the news is useful to a reader. If it is not, a reporter has no reason to write. My former news director used to ask, why do I care? Help a reporter understand how the news will help them and you are more likely to secure interest.
- Unambiguous. This is one of the most challenging aspects of creating a headline with only 55 characters. A headline should be very specific. A reader should be able to learn more about the news from the headline. What is the news?
Newspaper headlines offer a good model for inspiration. This headline recently appeared on the New York Times homepage, “Russia Tries to Prosecute a Dead Man.”
The headline captures your attention and draws you in. Let’s measure it against the 4U rule. The headline is definitely unique. It is also urgent. If Russia is prosecuting a dead man this seems like a matter that needs to be looked into immediately and that people should know about. Curiosity pushes the issue. This story based on the headline is useful because as a reader you are wondering if you too could be prosecuted after death. The headline is provocative, but also clear. You know from reading the headline that Russia is trying to prosecute a dead man and it paints a picture in your mind.
Additionally, the headline is under 55 characters.
In my experience the best headlines are provocative, not promotional. You want the headline to help the reader begin to write the story in their head and ask questions. Once you have crafted a headline imagine that you are reading the headline for the first time. Do you have a follow up question? If so, you are well on your way to creating compelling headlines that capture your audience’s attention.