Paul Fair III

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How to Write Better Headlines: 7 Essential Tips from R2-D2

mini-strom-trooper-how-to-write-better-headlines

Paul Fair III

Scribe at Scribe Media

Full Profile »

Episode IV: A NEW HOPE for Headlines

It is a period of headline war. Rebel writers, striking with verbal precision, have won their first victory against the Galactic Pile of Content. During the battle, rebel content marketers have managed to steal secret plans to bypass the Pile of Content’s ultimate weapon — the brain’s DEATH FILTER, an armored filter with enough power to destroy an amazing piece of content. 

star-wars-cats-better-headlines
via giphy.com

Pursued by the Pile of Content, readers race through the galaxy, burying their interest aboard the platforms of only the most interesting content marketers, who are the custodians of fascinating headlines that will restore interest to the Galaxy of Content Marketing…

An interview w/ R2-D2 about headlines

We talked to R2-D2 about headlines, and here’s a breakdown of what he said.

Basically, to write a good headline, there are a few things you, as a content marketer, must do (and a couple you must not do.) To write better headlines

  1. Don’t be vague
  2. Use the most interesting tidbit
  3. Know who you’re talking to
  4. Don’t use complicated language
  5. Make readers curious
  6. Make it actionable
  7. Use numbers

Whether you’re in B2B sales or B2B marketing, or really, even in B2C, we’re here to help. 

Let’s dive in.

(Also, besides R2-D2, we want to give a huge shoutout to NPR — we incorporated a lot of this NPR article.)

R2D2-how-to-write-better-headlines
via beano.com

Every good headline should…

1) Kill Darth Vague

Vague is bad. Let’s repeat that: Vague is bad. It’s like, the worst thing you can do with your headline. You want to kill Darth Vague (unlike Luke’s dad — Darth Vague never redeems himself).

darth-vader-write-better-headlines
via giphy.com

If you only learn one thing from this entire article, learn how to kill Darth Vague, who’s plaguing the galaxy of headlines on the Internet. How do you kill him? You kill him with specificity — specificity is the most powerful force in the headline universe. It’s like Yoda’s lightsaber. (Yeah, we know: Yoda didn’t kill Darth Vader, but just go with us.) 

Jedi mind trick: Sharpen your verbs:

  • Use “How to Interview Like a Boss” instead of “Talking With Guests on Your Show”
  • Use “4 Ways to Develop Your Frontline Employees” instead of “Manage Your Frontline Employees”
  • Use “3 Ways Elon Musk Created Culture at Tesla” instead of “How to Have Culture at Work”

2) Use the most interesting part of the article

Reverse-engineer the most interesting part of the story, the part that matters to you, and put that interesting tidbit as the headline. Journalists do this really, really well. They can interview a snail staring at boiling water, and they’d probably come up with a headline like, “Street Art: 4 Ways a Mico-Organism Sees Art Within Evaporation.”

Here at Sweet Fish, we write a lot of material from B2B podcasts. It’s part of our waterfall content strategy. So, forgive us as we make a B2B podcast headline aside:

If you are writing a headline for a B2B podcast, it’s really not a huge deal if a headline doesn’t capture the entire podcast or if the headline focuses on just one part of the story.

Podcasts are often live interviews with multiple people, who are coming up with impromptu thoughts about a variety of topics. Maybe the original story should have focused on “improving B2B sales.” But, during the podcast, the guest and/or the host went off course and started discussing ABM strategy, marketing and sales alignment, B2B marketing, why there are rings around Saturn… if you’ve ever listened to a live B2B podcast, you know what we’re talking about. 

saturn-write-better-headlines
via Wikipedia

Here’s the thing: maybe the final podcast goes in about 1,000 different directions, most of which were never fully explained, sort of like Solo: A Star Wars Story. You, as the content marketer, are supposed to come up with a headline for that jumbled mess. Breathe easy, padawan. You can take one small piece of the interview and include it as the headline for that podcast, or for your blog article.

An example of this in action would be:

You are writing a headline based on a topic that revolves around having better B2B sales. The interviewee mentions that they actually did business with Amazon to help their B2B sales team. Perfect. Amazon’s interesting, and it sticks out to you.

Now you create headlines like this:

  • 3 Ways to Improve Your B2B Sales, From an Amazon Sales Consultant
  • Amazon Sales Consultant Shares 3 Ways to Improve Your B2B Sales
  • We Interviewed A Guy Who Taught Sales to Amazon. Here’s What He Said:

3) Know who you’re talking to

Listen, many times, your blog, social media posts, or just your headline for a blog or podcast will be on an incredibly niche topic that doesn’t seem that appealing to you.

Guess what? That’s OK. Someone took time to discuss this topic, or assign you this material, so, someone, somewhere, decided this material is interesting to someone, even if that “someone” is only 5 people sitting in a room that actually thought The Phantom Menace was a good movie.

They’re wrong, but that’s OK. You still have to come up with a headline.

Take it for granted that someone needs this information you’re writing about (that’s why someone shared this information or asked you to write about it). Consider why that person, the audience for whom this information is geared, would read this story. What are they trying to accomplish?

We write mostly for B2B. Already, we’ve narrowed down our audience (and helped kill Darth Vague). But, usually, we can go much deeper than that. The audience is most likely in:

  • B2B sales
  • B2B marketing professionals
  • Tech
  • IT
  • IIOT 

Then, from there, the audience is probably further segmented into their place within a company:

  • CEO or top-level management
  • Entrepreneurs
  • Heads of functions (i.e., Head of B2B  Marketing or Director of B2B Sales or VP of North American Product Marketing)
  • Mid-level managers
  • Front-line workers (SDRs, BDRs, ADRs, etc.)

An example would be if you are trying to create a headline around a topic that is generally about “Emotional Safety in the Workplace.” 👈 That headline reaks of the stench of Darth Vague. But, if you consider the audience for this topic, and why you are writing this headline at all, you can easily turn that pretty bleak start into something specific, with very little mental work. 

advanced-math-gif-better-headlines
via giphy.com

You could turn: “Emotional Safety in the Workplace” into “How to Make Your Employees & Customers Feel Safe in a #MeToo World

Jedi mind trick: That article listed above was written for those who manage people, and toward anyone who is dealing with customers. But we never had to say “managers” or “SDRs” or “B2B marketers.” Because the title instructs you what to do … we subtly said: “Here’s how you help your employees” to managers and “Here’s how to help your customers” to B2B sales and marketers. Jedi mind trick.

Jedi mind trick 2: Also, especially if you are in B2B marketing, you can probably assume that the person reading this blog or listening to this podcast or watching this video is probably only from a specific market, a target market, a buyer persona, etc., — you are probably writing this piece, or creating this headline, in an effort to reach a very select group of people — a.k.a., CEOs at IIOT firms, or mid-level B2B sales managers at technology companies, etc. Easily, you could add that specificity to the title. 

You could change:

How to Have the Best 3-Minute Segment on Live Broadcast

to

How CEOs Can Have the Best 3-Minute Segment on Live Broadcast

4) Never sound like C3P0

Here’s the deal. If we had asked C3P0 for his advice on headlines, he would have touted several studies from the 6 million languages he speaks. His advice would have been brilliant. But guess what? Nothing he said would have been in plain English. (Plus, R2-D2 gets better SEO. So we put him in the title.)

Basically, you want your headlines to be easy to understand by the average business reader. Remember when you were in college, and you had to read articles like A self-organizing dynamic systems approach to the simulation of rill initiation and development on hillslopes?

Yeah. That’s a real headline. That person is, like C3P0, a genius, and he has a Ph.D., (but it’s definitely not a Ph.D. in content marketing).

C3P0-gif-headline-writing
via giphy.com

Don’t ever write a headline like that for content marketing. Unless you want to be mentioned in my next blog, entitled, “5 ways not to get a job in content marketing.” 

A few ways not to sound like C3P0:

  • Don’t use words that are only for headlines
  • Don’t write a headline that causes indifference
  • Don’t use confusion in your headline
  • Be careful with unclever cliches 

Example of an unclever headline using a cliche:
“What’s in a Name? Potentially, Major Controversy”

5) Ignite curiosity

Here’s the great thing about Star Wars. No matter what, you have a reaction to it. Maybe you saw Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and thought, correctly, “Wow. That was terrible.” But, guess what? You saw it. And you reacted to it. Maybe you thought Han Solo dying was a terrible mistake, or, maybe, you thought it was a bittersweet necessary moment. Regardless, everyone has a reaction to Han Solo dying.

That should be your headlines.

curious-will-ferrell-gif
via giphy.com

I say this to my writers sometimes: #PutAStakeInTheGround. Your headline needs to take that stake and drive it straight through Liam Neeson like you’re the Phantom Menace. Specifically, with your headline, you’re trying to do 2 things:

  1. Above all, make readers curious
  2. Lay a foundation for a story your reader will want to pursue

Examples:

6) Make it actionable

Try starting off a headline with:

  • How To …
  • 6 Ways You Can … 
  • Why You Should …
  • 9 Questions …
  • 3 Leadership Lessons …
  • 15 Ideas on …

7) Use numbers (just like Star Wars)

Numerous studies have shown that people like numbers, in general. So, use them.

In fact, the main reason Solo: A Star Wars Story was a worse film than Land Before Time 14 is because Solo was the only Star Wars film that didn’t have a number associated with it. Think about it. Even Rogue One had a number in the title. 

Numbers make good titles. Period. Thankfully, numbers are pretty easy to find in B2B — people are always touting that they “increased pipeline by 982,000%” or exclaiming “B2B sales are up by $400MM.” 

mini-storm-trooper-sitting-on-a-keyboard
via Unsplash

Use the numbers that are available within the story/podcast/video/article etc. It could even be an almost off-subject stat. You, as the headline creator, need to determine how to make it relate to the subject at hand.

Examples:

Rogue info that didn’t fit in w/ the rest of this blog

I hope those 7 ideas on writing headlines for content marketing helped you out. If not… well, I’m still not the writer of Solo: A Star Wars Tragedy. So, there’s that.

For more B2B marketing tips, subscribe to B2B Growth on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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