Today, I’m covering the remaining five techniques for writing headlines and email subject lines. I have identified nine techniques for crafting these, and I covered the first four in Email subject lines that work.
5. The number
Quantifying a fact implies authority, precision and completeness. It reassures the reader that we know what we’re talking about. Received wisdom suggests that odd numbers are more memorable than even ones. And within the universe of odd numbers, at least in the West, 7 has been voted the most popular number, according to a survey done a number of years ago by the mathematician Alex Bellos. He surveyed about 50,000 Europeans. So, the number 7 (or numbers with 7 in them) are more useful and tend to be more memorable.
As an example, we might say, “Whistle blower disclosures up 17%”, or, “37 tips for getting your blog read”, or, “7 simple six-pack exercises”, (using the alliteration of three Ss), or, “17 ways to generate more leads”. And, of course, the most famous of all, the strapline for my first book, Winner Takes All, “Seven-and-a-half principles for winning more bids, tenders and proposals”. The half principle being crafting a powerful executive summary.
7. The twist or surprise
This is also known as the pattern breaker, pulling the rug from under the reader. It leads them down one thought path, only to abruptly change direction at the end.
The Economist staff are masters at this. This was on a well-known outdoor poster (now known as an OOM…out-of-home medium): “I’ve never read The Economist…management trainee, age 42”. The implication is that if you don’t read The Economist, your career will stall and falter. You’ll end at the tender old age of 42, still being a trainee.
Another Economist one is, “In opinion polls, 100% of Economist readers had one”. It’s quite cheeky, in that reading The Economist enables you to be opinionated, or at least to have an informed opinion about what’s going on in the world.
Another pseudo-quote, “Economist readers welcome”. And underneath, “Sperm donor clinic”.
Finally, a more popular example of the twist, the surprise or the pattern breaker. “In February, Kanye West gave Kim Kardashian a diamond-encrusted Rolex. Three months later, they were divorced”. What that does is lead the reader down one avenue, or thought path, and then we’re abruptly changing direction.
8. Juxtaposition, or contrasting pairs
An example of this might be, “Probing the cause of diabetes, one pizza at a time”. Or, an actual headline for a life insurance product: “Cash if you die, cash if you don’t”. And here was a open university subject line: “Get to the green without going to U”. The juxtaposition is that you can get a degree without actually going to university.
The next one is from an academic paper, around proletarian political policies. “Live working or die fighting: how the working class went global”.
Then another Economist headline, when Barak Obama was the U.S. president. “Putin dares, Obama dithers”. So you’ve got the pause in the middle caused by the comma. And you’ve got the alliteration of the two Ds.
We can also use word play, double meaning or double entendre (to use the French). We might say, “Wake up to the importance of sleep,” or, “Old age: a thing of the past?” And this is an old one. In the era when Volkswagens had the reputation for never breaking down (this is a sweet one, because Volkswagen owners are a bit cultish), “Ever heard people talking about their Volkswagens? They go on and on and on”.
9. Standfirst under the headline
We can grab the reader’s attention with a dramatic headline, then give an explanatory one-liner, known as a standfirst, underneath it. The Economist uses standfirsts a lot in their articles.
We might say something like, “HMRC is closing in”. That’s your headline. Then the standfirst could be, “New tax laws are making it harder to set up off-shore tax havens”. So we’re giving the reader a little bit more information.
Another one. The headline could be, “It’s a class act”, followed by a standfirst, “New UK class-action procedures come into force 1 October”.
A third and final example of a standfirst would be a headline, “Leaders in driverless cars”, followed by, “What happens when left-wing politicians confront new technologies?”
This is how the best email subject lines are created
Now we have a total of nine ways of grabbing the reader’s attention with a headline, or in the case of an email, the best email subject lines.
I hope you’ve found this useful and interesting. Let me know how you get on with applying these techniques on the Facebook page.
I’m Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and get the results they want from the words they write.