Creativity is hard. And trying to be original just makes everything worse.
So if you’re having trouble creating a fiery headline, just do what everyone else does:
Plunder and pillage from every available source.
Authors and editors spend days agonising over the titles of their books. And you can cash in on their misery with a quick bit of thievery.
Let’s take a look at a few classic gems and see why they work:
1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
A headline in the form of a question does a lot of the work for you.
On a sub-conscious level, your readers are already considering the possible answers – which means they’re already engaging in the topic before they’ve read the first line of your content (or even clicked through to the page).
But Philip K. Dick’s influential novel (the one that inspired Blade Runner) is doing a whole lot more than that.
In just six words, he’s managed to:
- Ask an intriguing question
- Give us specific hints about the content of the book (androids and their psychological behaviour)
- And introduce an intriguing new concept (artificial dreams).
And added together, these things create some serious interest.
So how can you bring this to your own headlines?
It’s not enough to just rearrange a normal headline into the form of a question. You need to spice things up.
You need to ask a question that prods their imagination. An open question with no easy answer – a question that demands that they read on if they want to uncover a secret.
Because if you present your readers with a question that has an easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, that’s the end of it. Before they’ve clicked on your content or even thought about whether they want to read more, they’ve resolved the issue – they don’t need any more from you.
2. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
If I made a list of titles I never thought I’d see on a published book, this would be somewhere on that list.
Just like the story of the novel itself, the title is a mash-up. It’s the marriage of two completely opposite genres and settings, and this disparity creates something truly unique and attention-grabbing.
Even if you hate both tropes – period dramas and zombie attacks – it’s hard not to be intrigued by the wackiness of two ideas that should never have been pushed together.
If you’ve never heard of this book, I bet you’re already looking it up. You’re either outraged, incredulous, amused, or curious. And if you can evoke any or all of those reactions towards your own content, you can call that a success.
So how can you replicate it?
That’s simple. Take whatever topic you’re writing about, and mash it up with something else that doesn’t seem connected:
- ‘How Accounting Software Saved My Marriage’
- ‘5 Lessons in People Management from Game of Thrones‘
- ‘Why Every CEO Needs Ice Cream at Their Board Meetings’.
But there’s one condition here:
You need to respect your audience. If you’re going to marry two estranged concepts to make an attractive headline, you need to make sure your content actually follows through on that promise.
It doesn’t have to become the entire thrust of your message – but at some point, you’re going to have to show your readers exactly how accounting software saved your marriage.
3. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
We’ve all heard of ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’.
So when we see a title that’s the mirror image of an established phrase, we’re intrigued and amused. We’re drawn in by the familiarity of the construction – but we’re hooked by the twist on a classic set of words.
You might think this is a bit of a cheap ploy: piggybacking on the fame of a book title that you’ve appropriated for your own gains.
And there’s some truth in that. But in reality, everything ‘original’ is a modification or combination of things that have gone before. It just so happens that this method is particularly transparent.
If you’re able to twist a well-known title into something funny or surprising, most people will appreciate the parody. You’re giving them a chance to participate in the collusion, and that participation can act as a powerful hook on its own.
So how do we make it work?
You already know how it works. Take a well-known title (or slogan or quotation) and flip it around: turn it upside down to make it fit your own agenda. That could mean:
- A negation – ‘Why the Customer Isn’t Always Right’
- A modification – ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Taxes (But Were Afraid to Ask)’
- Or an opposite – ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Useless People’.
The closer your new twisted title is to the original, the better. But the difference needs to be clear (as in the ‘How to Lose Friends’ example) – and it needs to make sense (would anyone really be afraid to ask questions about taxes?).
4. A Clockwork Orange
If you didn’t have a few curious questions when you first saw this book title, you’re probably a clockwork person yourself.
Anthony Burgess hasn’t just created a piece of intriguing imagery. He’s brought together two unrelated concepts in a new and unique way to create something totally original (just like the ‘electric sheep’ and ‘artificial dreams’ in the example above).
And before you’ve opened the first page of the novel, you already know things are about to get weird.
So how can you steal it?
In the content world, a three-word title that consists of a single image probably isn’t going to get you the attention you want. It’s too abstract and minimal for the audience and interests you’re trying to target.
But if you can weave something like this into one of your more everyday titles, you can create the kind of headline that grips a visitor’s eyes and doesn’t let go.
You could try:
- ‘Do You Have a Creep Nose Working in Your Company?’
- ‘How to Turn Your Marketing Campaign into a Wiry Wheel‘
- ‘Looking for More Clients? You Need to Increase Your Vein Range‘
I don’t know what any of these mean. But don’t they sound interesting? Wouldn’t you want to click on a piece of content that promised an explanation of one of these new terms?
Even though I know these examples are nonsense pairings of words, I’m intrigued. The gears are in motion, and I think I already have an idea in my mind of what kind of person a ‘Creep Nose’ might be.
5. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Dave Eggers’ memoir is – I hope – titled with a sense of humour.
It’s self-referential. It breaks the fourth wall. But besides its silliness, it’s also shamelessly selling itself.
It’s a story about a man looking after his younger brother after his parents die of cancer. So it’s probably heartbreaking. And it’s a book that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize – so it might not be a stretch to call it a work of genius.
But regardless of what you think of the book, that’s a title that demands attention. And it’s a great example of the kind of shameless self-promotion that you can bring to your own content headlines.
So how can we use it?
Don’t settle for the mundane. Add a little excitement to your headlines. And if you’re feeling cheeky, inject some exaggeration and hyperbole along with it. Instead of going straight to your default headline (like ’10 Tricks to Help You Get More Sales’) you could try:
- ‘The Only Guide to Closing Deals You’ll Ever Need’
- ‘The Most Exhaustive Compendium of Sales Tricks on the Internet’
- ’10 Industry Secrets from Millionaire Salesmen They Begged Us Not to Reveal’
But you need to be careful. As these examples show, it’s easy to start creating headlines that border on the ludicrous. You need to maintain a healthy level of dignity and respect for your audience – you don’t want your professional website to start sounding like tabloid clickbait.
Does any of it really matter?
Book authors spend a lot of time on their headlines. And you should too.
Just like a book-lover perusing the shelves in Waterstones, the people you want to attract are browsing through social media feeds (or scrolling through the first page of Google).
They’re overwhelmed with options and offers of articles and blog posts to read. And that little extra bit of hard work spent spicing up your headlines can mean the difference between a headline that’s skipped and a headline that gets clicks.