Keep Your Head Up! Good Writing Starts at the Top
“If you don’t have a headline, you don’t have a story.”
I’m not sure when I first heard that bit of coaching advice, but it sure stuck. Twenty-plus years into this line of work, I find myself quoting it to colleagues, clients and myself on a routine basis.
This line applied way back in the golden age of newspapers, when multiple editions hit the streets over the course of one day and competing outlets fought to attract eyeballs. And it applies today, as audiences spend mere seconds scanning their feeds or inboxes for the point of view they will sample and share next.
A good headline is succinct (short!) and delivers the essence of the story, while dangling a bit of truthful intrigue for the reader. While it takes time to whittle a first draft down to the bare substance that will generate interest, it is not actually that difficult to write a decent headline.
Nonetheless, while a good headline is worth a thousand words of copy, organizations routinely struggle to generate ones worth reading. As with most challenges in organizations, it is a systemic, not a technical, problem. From my experience, three factors drive this failure, and they actually drive other communications stumbles that prevent organizations from “being all they can be” in their effort to persuade audiences.
First, junior communicators are often not drilled to generate good headlines for their initial drafts. First cuts at press releases, blog posts, op-eds and other copy often come in with flat and far-too-long heads, if they come with them at all. The solution? All first drafts should come with a pass at a short, snappy headline. The very effort to generate one forces the writer to shore up the rest of the copy, so there are multiple benefits right off the bat.
Second, even if the first draft emerges with a decent headline, internal review routinely guts any hope at its survival in the final draft. Subject matter experts have to weigh in on the substance, and most organizations have multiple folks looking at drafts. But their input should be on substance, not style. My experience is that these well-intentioned folks tend to push back on anything provocative or less than fully explanatory of the whole story. The solution? Invite factual review, but keep technical experts out of the headline business.
Finally, the most significant obstacle opposing good headlines (and good writing in general) is the lean of most organizational executives toward a conservative, better-safe-than-sorry approach to public communications. This is often expressed in rejection or softening of good, bold headlines to a point where beleaguered communicators stop sending them in the first place.
The solution? This one is a bit tougher, but the best place to start is to make the case that better headlines propel overall communications success. This can be revealed through data (open rates for press releases and social media hits vary based on headline lengths, for example) or through feedback from reporters and other audiences. Just ask them which recent pieces they prefer, and share the input with the boss.
In the end, the communicator’s job is to persuade key audiences to take action that supports the organization. Developing the muscle memory to deliver tight, powerful headlines and then fighting for them will make the finished product more persuasive. What’s more, the effort to write good headlines will pay off across the entire operation, improving writing in general and forcing all minds toward phrases that are clear, powerful and invite the reader in.
In an increasingly crowded and noisy environment, it’s a fight worth waging.