If you’ve ever Googled “how to create headlines,” it’s likely you’ve come across templates and multiple “headline types.”
It becomes clear that there are many options.
And it can be overwhelming.
I find templates or “headline types” helpful for inspiration. They can be extremely valuable and make your life easier.
But I’ve also found that if you don’t understand the underlying reasons WHY a great headline works, you’ll have a tough time getting someone’s attention (even if you use one of the popular headline types or templates).
Why “Benefits” Alone Don’t Get People’s Attention
Copywriting teaches us to focus on the benefits instead of features.
Your audience wants to know how they will benefit from your content, product, or service.
If you focus on features, the audience doesn’t see the connection for how it improves their life by either solving a problem or satisfying a desire.
They aren’t going to pay attention unless they know it benefits them.
But this is only part of the equation.
Imagine this scenario:
You’re in the health space.
Let’s say you’re clear on how your content will benefit your audience. So you create a headline (using the listicle headline type).
Let’s say the headline is: “3 Reasons Why Intermittent Fasting Benefits Your Hormones.”
Now let me ask you something. What if your audience already knows that intermittent fasting benefits their hormones?
Will they click the article and read it?
If they’re a loyal follower, they might click it even if they’re familiar with the benefits.
If they’re not loyal followers and are aware of the benefits, they probably won’t.
This is why knowing your audience is key.
For instance, if you were targeting me, I probably wouldn’t click it and read. I’m already familiar with the benefits of intermittent fasting and hormone production.
It doesn’t get my attention.
Now, if I saw this headline before I started intermittent fasting, perhaps I would.
So if benefits alone don’t get people’s attention, then there’s another important variable that we need to consider.
Evoking Surprise: The Key Variable For Grabbing Attention
We pay attention to events that surprise us.
Don’t let the simplicity of this statement fool you.
Research in cognitive science explains that unexpected events evoke surprise.
An unexpected event is defined as a mismatch between incoming information and someone’s existing model or “mental map” about a specific topic (this mismatch is referred to as a schema-discrepancy). I’ll share some examples in a moment.
These unexpected events “cause an automatic interruption of ongoing mental processes that is followed by an attentional shift and attentional binding to the events.”
In other words, unexpected events grab our attention.
And if this event helps solve an urgent problem or satisfy a desire, there are high chances that someone will click it and consume the content.
According to Buzzsumo, some of the most popular headlines in 2020 were about the Covid-19 Pandemic.
Well, this virus was unexpected.
Before 2020, it wasn’t a part of our existing model for how the world worked. So we wanted to learn as much as we could about it.
So since we had a limited understanding, many headlines using the virus contained “unexpected” knowledge and ideas that could help you better navigate the situation.
These posts performed very well in terms of attention.
This is one reason why trendy topics perform well.
In 2006, your Solar System Model was challenged when Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet.
Even further back with Copernicus, the idea that the “earth revolves around the sun” challenged the existing model that the “sun revolves around the earth,” moving us to the heliocentric model.
These information mismatches evoke surprise, grabbing our attention.
If a benefit-driven headline does NOT explicitly or indirectly imply something unexpected, it’s less likely to get someone’s attention.
This is especially the case if you’re trying to get the attention of a stranger or someone who has a low level of investment in your brand.
Every Headline Is Either Direct Or Indirect
So if unexpected events get our attention, how do we apply them to headlines?
There are various headline templates and multiple “headline types.”
So to make this easier for us, let’s break down headlines into two broad categories.
I’ve found that — when utilizing this concept of unexpected events and surprise — you can place every headline into one of these distinct categories.
- Direct Headlines — Explicitly states the unexpected and counter-intuitive idea.
- Indirect Headlines — Keeps the unexpected and counter-intuitive idea “behind-the-curtains,” leaving an air of mystery.
Direct Headlines: The Main Idea Is Front-And-Center
With the direct headline, it’s clear what the big idea is. It’s explicitly stated in the headline itself.
The main idea is front-and-center.
This type of headline clearly expresses the value proposition. And for the direct headline to be compelling, it needs to be very effective at eliciting surprise and expressing an unexpected or counter-intuitive idea.
Here are some examples of a direct headline.
The following headlines are collected from Buzzsumo and focus on articles written on Medium.com.
Headline: “Pepsi’s $32 Billion Typo Caused Deadly Riots”
You know what’s going to happen in the story. It’s explicitly stated.
And someone may be thinking to themselves, “How could a typo cause deadly riots??”
Since it’s unexpected and evokes surprise, you want to read more.
Headline: “How Elon Musk’s Starlink Could Disrupt The Telecommunications Industry”
By clicking this article, we know that we’re going to learn how Musk’s Starlink could disrupt the telecommunications industry.
Depending on what the reader knows about Starlink and the telecommunications industry, this could be an unexpected and novel idea.
And if you’re in the telecommunications industry and don’t know how Starlink will impact you, then you’ll be eager to learn more.
Headline: “Google’s Genius $49/mo Course Is About To Replace College Degrees”
By clicking this article, we know we’ll be consuming content about Google’s course and how it’ll replace college degrees. It’s explicitly stated.
The idea of a course replacing college degrees is a counter-intuitive and unexpected idea.
“You mean I could take a course from Google instead of going to college??”
With all of these examples, you can see how direct they are.
Notice that with each headline, the value proposition or story is explicitly stated.
They’re also surprising because they state something counter-intuitive. The main idea is unexpected, leaving you wanting to click and learn more.
Indirect Headlines: The Main Idea Is Behind-The-Curtains
And then you have indirect headlines.
These types of headlines dance around the main idea.
They leave an air of mystery and keep it hidden “behind-the-curtains.”
The value in indirect headlines is that they naturally evoke curiosity.
Instead of explicitly sharing what information you’ll receive when you click it, there’s a big question mark since the main idea is hidden behind-the-curtains.
Since you can’t see behind the curtain, you’ll naturally ask yourself, “Will this idea help me or add value to me?”
In other words, you’re anticipating something unexpected and surprising to inform your current perspective or model.
Some indirect headlines include the following:
Headline: “[COVID-19] One Important Recommendation You May Not be Hearing”
This example is indirect because it dances around the idea of “recommendation.” What is this recommendation?
If it were to say something like, “One Important Vitamin Supplement You May Not Be Hearing About,” this would be more direct since it’s more specific with the recommendation.
The content naturally evokes curiosity. Since it’s a mystery, you’re anticipating something unexpected that could help you.
Headline: “6 Habits Of Super Learners” [link unavailable]
Many listicles leverage the indirect headline.
These 6 habits are behind-the-curtain. There’s an air of mystery.
If you’re interested in meta-learning, this headline evokes anticipation, “What are these habits? Which habits am I doing? Will one of these habits help me learn better?”
You’re anticipating (and hoping) for an unexpected and surprising idea that you can use to learn better.
Headline: “536 AD — the worst year in history”
This headline dances around the idea that 536 AD is the worst year in history.
One of our first questions is, “Why?”
And since many people are accustomed to saying, “This is the worst year ever…” seeing a headline like this is unexpected.
“You mean 2020 is NOT the worst year in history?”
The more indirect the headline, the more mystery there is behind-the-curtains.
More extreme versions of an indirect headline can be effective. And others aren’t.
If you have a loyal following, these extreme headlines could be effective.
If you don’t, this could be perceived as clickbaity… ultimately hurting your brand.
Taking Indirect Headlines Too Far
Sometimes you’ll see extreme indirect headlines where you don’t even get a hint about the topic or main idea.
I’ve received lots of extreme indirect headlines in my email inbox. And you probably have too.
For instance, one brand would habitually send me emails with headlines that say “Important message for you…” or “Want an invite?”
Not only is the main idea behind-the-curtains… but I don’t even know what theater I’m in.
The individual sending me these emails had a history of flooding my inbox with lots of promotional content and not much value. So I eventually unsubscribed.
I’m not bashing this type of headline because it can work if you:
- Don’t overdo it.
- Have a history of adding value.
In essence, this brand began conditioning me to feel unsatisfied whenever I saw their headlines. Every time I clicked one, it was another promotional offer that I didn’t care about.
My recommendation is to be mindful of this and observe how your audience responds to them.
It’s Your Turn: Brainstorm Some Headlines
We can start brainstorming some ideas since we understand what makes a headline catchy, and we have two distinct buckets to place them in.
The goal of this process is not to land on the perfect headline from the start. Ideally, you’ll want to split test and experiment with different ideas to see which one works best.
A helpful analogy is to imagine you’re in a plane gliding over a mountain range. Your mission is to make it to the mountain with a red flag on the summit.
If you’re parachuting out of the plane, would you rather land closer or further from the summit with the red flag?
If your goal is to get there as fast as possible, then you’ll want to land closer to the summit.
We’re not necessarily trying to land on the perfect headline. We’re just trying to land as close to the summit as possible.
1. What’s your main idea?
Start with the main idea you want to talk about. Create 1–2 sentences so you have something concrete to work with.
2. What about this idea is unexpected or novel?
This is your counter-intuitive idea that will grab someone’s attention. It’s something unexpected.
Remember that you want first to understand how your audiences’ schema or model works. This helps you figure out what ideas are counter-intuitive and unexpected.
“The more bound a person is by the initial perception, the more powerful the ‘Aha!” experience is. It’s as though a light were suddenly turned on inside.” — Stephen Covey
For instance, if you’re targeting fitness professionals, then an idea like “quality sleep will help you lose weight” is probably already understood. It already exists in their model and probably won’t grab their attention (since it’s not unexpected and surprising).
3. Create 5–10 Direct Headlines
Now, having built the foundation for your idea, let’s experiment with a couple of headlines.
Brainstorm 5–10 direct headlines. Explicitly state this counter-intuitive idea.
You can use the examples above as inspiration.
4. Create 5–10 Indirect Headlines
Repeat the same process for indirect headlines.
What did you come up with?
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