By Lindsey Lewandowski
AM&P 2017 Annual Meeting speaker Leslie O’Flahavan’s one-hour breakout session, “How to Write Headlines That Connect with Subscribers, Members, Followers, and Readers,” started with a one-minute discussion about headline-writing hassles.” During the June 27 afternoon session held in Arlington, Virginia, attendees offered up some examples, including:
1. Reaching members journalistically, from a communications department standpoint, as opposed to with “marketing speak.”
2. Finding the happy medium between accurate, to-the-point, and potentially boring headlines, and others that are too obscure and general, which may force readers to determine on their own what the story is about.
3. Needing to secure layers of approval before headlines can be printed.
After the discussion, O’Flahavan, founder and owner of E-WRITE, added five more reasons why writing a great headline can be challenging:
1. Not having the time to craft the wording for headlines.
2. Not having the space for headlines. “Space is always tight,” O’Flahavan said. “I rarely have heard anyone say, ‘We have too much room for the headlines.’”
3. Collaborating when writing and getting approval for headlines.
4. Wanting to fall back on being cautious and publishing safe headlines. “I have found association publishers sometimes to be quite cautious, and when there’s a really interesting headline that they could write, they write a safer one,” O’Flahavan said.
5. Having a world view that shows focus on the people who are publishing, not on the interests of the people who are reading the headline.
“But that’s not the topic of our session — why this is hard,” O’Flahavan said. “Let’s get along to making it easier.”
She shared examples of “not-so-good, less-than-stellar” headlines that are common to associations: “Dogs at Work” (it lacks a verb and doesn’t tell readers what the story is about); “Executive Director Attends Ceremony Honoring Volunteers” (“it’s boring,” was the consensus among the attendees, as well as vague and potentially self-serving); and “Tune in to our Top Podcasts” (it doesn’t answer the reader’s question, “why?”).
O’Flahavan ultimately shared two types of flat headlines to avoid:
1. The “we did a thing” headline. “These are boring,” O’Flahavan said. “We’re better than this. I don’t want you to write these.” An example: “‘Health Group Sponsors Hospital Study.” The headline, rather, should focus on the study’s findings, O’Flahavan advised. “Our readers and our members rarely care only that we ‘did a thing.’”
2. The “topic not message” headline. “A really interesting-to-read headline often has a verb in it,” O’Flahavan said. “Verbs are everything. They’re better than jewelry. They’re what makes a headline interesting to read. If you write a headline without a verb, it’s very likely that you’re giving the topic and not the message. And readers really, really want a message. A well-chosen verb will take a headline from Topic Land to Message Land.”
O’Flahavan prompted attendees to consider a topic (10 myths about stepfamilies) and develop a message headline to tell readers what they should know, feel, or do about the topic. An example of a message headline that was given: “Stepmothers Are Mean and Other Myths about Stepfamilies.” Readers should never have to work for the message. Writers and editors should do the work. “Our members are paying us to digest topics and prepare messages,” O’Flahavan said.
She also shared three methods for writing engaging headlines, to avoid “borifying” them:
1. The two-part headline with a colon. “I am a fan,” O’Flahavan said. “I am in favor.” An example she offered: “The Art of the Apostrophe: How to Master Difficult Punctuation.” Even if you don’t use both halves and keep the headline in this structure, having the two halves while you’re crafting the headline can sometimes free up your brain, O’Flahavan explained. “Often, I find, you can invert it with no problem,” she said. “Usually, it’s the big idea on the left of the colon, and then some kind of an example on the right.”
2. The question headline. “Why is this a good idea?” O’Flahavan asked. “Because the question makes everyone involved with writing or approving the headline the reader’s proxy. Whose question is it? It’s the reader’s question. … You can actually say, ‘I want to ask what the reader will be asking.’” It’s important to answer the reader’s question in the copy. “You must answer,” O’Flahavan said.
3. The simple-ways-to-do-a-complex-thing headline. O’Flavahan offered an example: “Two Simple Ways to Manage Time Effectively.” These headlines don’t need to include “simple” in them, but the formula can make articles very accessible to readers. “These are actually quite popular headline formulas, if you like them,” she said.
During the session, O’Flahavan also advised attendees to consider what they could learn from clickbait headlines. “I’m not in favor of clickbait. I’m not saying you should write it,” she said. “But we should see what we can learn from clickbait — because those headlines work.”
Attendees brainstormed reasons why readers may be intrigued by clickbait headlines:They want to find out what happens next. “What’s the writing craft that makes readers go on?” O’Flahavan posed as a consideration.
1. They want to determine cause and effect. What caused something to happen? Why did something happen?
2. They want to know about a subject or main character.
3. Clickbait headlines play on readers’ emotions.
Ultimately, what association professionals can learn from clickbait headlines is that they tell a story. Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools. If our headlines don’t tell compelling stories, readers will move on. “My friends, these are habits we can adopt,” O’Flahavan said. “Narrative is the most compelling structure we have.”
Lindsey Lewandowski is the associate editor of the Academy of General Dentistry’s newsmagazine, AGD Impact, headquartered in Chicago. She also is a member of the 2017 Association Media & Publishing Content Creation Committee.