The cliché is that writing an effective headline is all about grabbing someone’s attention. It’s a shout across the street – not a subtle point made in conversation.
However, it’s important to remember that the most memorable headlines – the ones in the national newspapers that get the most attention – are often the ones that have caused the most offence or outrage.
And that’s not really the kind of attention you’re likely to be looking for.
Headlines, especially in PR, are much more about getting your message across quickly, so the reader (often the journalist deciding whether to cover the story) can decide if the story below the headline is likely to be of interest to them.
And, of course, if you’ve written a good headline, then a time-pressed journalist may well copy and paste it straight into the paper too, so it’s really worth spending a little time getting it right.
So here are our top tips for headline writing in PR:
- Keep it short and simple – think about the key message of your press release or story and tell it straight in no more than a dozen words – less if possible.
- Paint a picture – choose specific words instead of generic ones to help put a picture in the reader’s mind. So if the story is about a company’s fundraising activities supporting a local charity, make it specific – such as ‘Supermarket’s trolley dash supports food bank’ or ‘Car fitters take to two wheels for cancer charity’.
- Avoid clichés, even if they’re true. Some people genuinely are ‘tireless fundraisers’ or ‘kind-hearted volunteers’ but the problem with well-worn phrases like these is that they stop having any kind of emotional punch. Better instead to concentrate on the specifics of their ‘tireless’ or ‘kind-hearted’ good deeds.
- Appeal to emotions – while the main text of press releases and news stories should stick to the facts and use quotes to express opinions, adjectives can be used to indicate the tone of the story to come and draw the reader in by evoking an emotional response before they’ve got to the main text of the story….
- … but don’t exaggerate – readers will be annoyed if they’re lured in on the promise of an ‘amazing’ or ‘shocking’ story which turns out to be nothing of the sort.
- Avoid puns unless they work – there are some classic examples of wordplay used to great effect in the tabloids, but puns can really make the reader cringe if they’re shoe-horned into a phrase they don’t fit. Think of the ugly sisters trying to squeeze a foot into the glass slipper – it’s just a bit embarrassing!
- Read it back – once you’ve written your headline, re-read the story and then consider whether the headline you’ve come up with reflects the message you’re trying to convey. Typical readers will only spend a few seconds glancing at the headline so think – would it tempt you to read on?