Did this headline stop you in your tracks?

We just spent a great couple of days with the communicators at a big utility company in Pennslyvania. Three two-hour, customized Zoom workshops over two days.

When I build customized workshops, I ask the client to bury me in samples. For these workshops, I went through about 100 different articles, videos, leadership communications, and social media posts in order to build the sessions. Like almost any other company, their content fell into one of three categories:

  1. Really great stuff . . . Where they were allowed to flex their creative muscles.
  2. Corporate stuff. You know, not terrible . . . but not all that great. Could be a lot better.
  3. Content that was obviously mauled and mangled in the approval process, it was so bad.

We talked a lot about the importance of headlines. In the modern world, where online information and content is overwhelming people, headlines have never been more important.

They have to serve as online speed bumps. As people go racing through your content online, your headlines have to make them slow down. Make them think. Force them to say, “Hey, wait. Maybe I should slow down and read this.”

And they have to tell the reader what the story is actually about, so readers can then make a decision about whether or notĀ  they want to dive deeper into the story.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: Always pretend that the headline is going to be a stand-alone link on a Web or intranet page. There will be no subheads underneath it, no summaries. People are going to read the headline and decide, based on just those words, whether or not they want to invest some time clicking through to see the content.

Most corporate headlines fail that test. Here are a dozen headlines that I have recently seen on corporateĀ  intranets, web sites, and e-mail newsletters. Not a single one would pass the critical “stand alone” test:

  • Merry and Bright
  • Change is the Only Constant
  • One of Those Days
  • Innovation!
  • Knowledge and Power
  • Together We Win
  • Serving the Community
  • Staying Safe as We Learn and Grow
  • Living the Mission
  • Overcoming Adversity
  • Synergy is the New Reality
  • Everybody Wins with Wellness


If any of those headlines was a link on a home page or e-mail newsletter, would it slow you down and make you click through to get the content? Of course not.

When you write headlines, make sure that they tell the online reader what the story is about. Then they can decide whether or not they want to invest some time in reading it.

And if you want to work with us to Customize a writing workshop for your team, based on your materials, let us know! We would love to jump on a call and talk about it.

One response to Did this headline stop you in your tracks?

  1. Bill Spaniel

    I learned headline writing at Mizzou’s J-School in the 1960s as part of the required two copyediting classes. I believe it was more challenging then to write good headlines as we had to be sure the heads could fit in the required space. Unlike today where you can shrink or expand a head to fill space thanks to publication software, we couldn’t adjust a font’s size once it had been assigned. During my senior year, the copyediting prof hired the best copyediting students to grade the assignments of the junior class. (With more than 100 students in beginning copyediting, he couldn’t grade everything.) Each of the graders had 12 to 14 juniors to review every week. If I thought a head wasn’t good enough, I had to come up with an alternate. A student could challenge my assessment with the prof, but I believe he only changed one or two grades I awarded.

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