You know that a great headline is your best chance to make an impression on your reader – at the very least, to get him to read further. You may have agonized over long or short headlines, cutting a word, punching up the language, and more. Isn't there a simpler way?
As a matter of fact, there is a simpler way. And believe it or not, it's as easy as breathing.
Sean D'Souza writing for Copyblogger calls it the breath test. He makes the point that one word more or less in a headline typically won't make a difference. But one IDEA more or less can, and will. What exactly does this mean? Here's an example of an unwieldy headline:
“How To Recognize Six Difficult Telltale Signs Of Disinterest And Lack Of Motivation In Your Student And Customer.”
Okay, how many ideas are going on in that sentence? I can even count them all. You have students and customers, disinterest and lack of motivation, six difficult telltale signs and how to recognize them, and I'm not entirely sure how to divide them all. If that headline was simply a sentence, a high school English teacher would throw a yellow flag on it for running on and lack of proper focus.
What is the limit to the number of ideas you can comfortably fit into a headline? And is that any different from asking about the number of words? Both can be answered by D'souza's breath test. Take a regular breath and try to read the headline. If you can't do it, it's time to revise it until you can.
In a sense, reading isn't just a mental process. We say the words to ourselves as we read; we even “breathe” as we read. That's what punctuation is for. If we have trouble getting to the end of a headline on one breath, anyone reading the headline will have trouble with it. If you're left mentally gasping, you can't process what's going on.
Now, headlines typically don't have punctuation, which is why you should be able to say them easily in one breath. Can you use a longer headline and still have it work? Yes you can; in fact, one of the best-selling headlines can't be said in one breath. But notice what it does differently:
“They Laughed when I Sat Down at the Piano. But when I Started
See the period? It's there to let the reader pause and catch a breath before introducing the next idea. You don't have to use a period; a long dash, parentheses, or other forms of punctuation can work just as well.
So, if you're writing a headline and you don't know if it will work, try saying it out loud. If you're struggling for breath when you get to the end of the headline, your readers will be as well. It's time to revise, by adding some punctuation, doing a complete rewrite, or some combination. Let's try it out on the difficult headline I used to illustrate the point. How about this:
“Six Signs You're Boring Your Student or Customer (and How to Recognize Them).”
It's not perfect yet, but it's a lot easier to read and remember than the original headline, isn't it? Try out the breath test on all of your headlines; you'll be amazed and delighted at the difference. Good luck!
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