An article’s headline is like a carnival barker without the midway. Metaphorically speaking, it calls out to readers as they hurry by. “Read this! You won’t win a giant teddy bear, but you won’t have to play ring toss either.”
I admire writers who can come up with succinct, eye-catching headlines—also people who can win giant teddy bears by playing ring toss.
Headline writers on my internet newsfeed know how to get us to read their articles. At least they know how to get me to read their articles. I’ve whiled away many hours clicking on article links because the headlines were irresistible—also because I didn’t want to do any actual work.
But it’s not been for nothing. I’ve come up with a list of tips I can use to make my column headlines more interesting. First, a disclaimer. I don’t have the space to summarize every fascinating story behind the actual headlines below. But if you type them into your internet search bar, you’ll be as enlightened as I am, which is to say, not very. You’ll also be behind on all your chores.
Qualities of an eye-catching headline
1. They appeal to our self-interest. Who wouldn’t want to read articles with headlines like, “6 steps to flat abs,” “Are you making this huge mistake with peaches?” or “The best haircuts for older women,” except maybe younger women and men.
I was also very interested in the headline, “Why you should never call Queen Elizabeth by her name.” Now there’s news you can use. You never know when you might run into the queen, get all tongue-tied and say something like, “It’s nice to meet you Elizabeth.”
I’m not in the market for a new house now, but I might be someday, so naturally, I clicked on the link to a story with the headline, “Elon Musk is selling his $4.5 million home that overlooks Los Angeles. Here’s a look inside.” I looked, and frankly I was surprised and a little disappointed that it only has four bedrooms. I’d expect more for 4.5 million. Maybe that’s why he’s moving.
2. They overpromise. I clicked on the headline, “How to target fat loss in every area,” but a few lines into the article came the truth: “Unfortunately you can’t specifically target fat loss.” Dang!
I read an article with the alluring title, “The real reason we kiss under the mistletoe will blow your mind.” My mind was not blown.
And this one really overpromised: “This question can supposedly tell you whether or not you’re a psychopath.” Who wouldn’t want to clear that up?
I went right to the article, but the author spent most of it reassuring readers that one question wasn’t enough. I won’t tell you the question because it’s really long and it doesn’t work anyway. And that’s unfortunate because I’m sure the people in my life would like to know.
3. They’re intriguing.
I’m always drawn to headlines for stories about the best, worst, most and least of everything, for example, “The most boring town in every state,” The 10 most disgusting foods in the world” and “The 55 worst tattoos ever.” Don’t you want to make sure your tattoo isn’t on the list? Or your cooking?
There’s plenty of bests too, for example, “The world’s best places to retire” and the “The best ice cream shop in every state.” How do they know? Does someone travel around trying ice cream all over the country so they can write about it? That does sound like more fun than tracking down the worst tattoos.
And finally, I’m always intrigued by headlines that promise to address life’s big issues, for example, “Why you can’t tickle yourself,” “Why do we have eyebrows” and “How to stop wasting time.”
(Dorothy Rosby is the author of several humor books, including I Used to Think I Was Not That Bad and Then I Got to Know Me Better. Contact email@example.com.)