How to write a headline that guarantees nobody will read your story

Hey, you. Yes, you – the internal comms writer with that sullen look on your face because the guys in the business don’t respect your expertise. Were these headlines yours?

Enabling talent
Developing the new portal
Bringing information to life
Celebrating success!
Supporting Cancer Research
Delivering an outstanding experience
Committing ourselves

(Groans. Rolls eyes. Flops tongue out and makes wrist-slashing motion in attempt to capture the suicidal effects of intense boredom.)

Well, at least you got a reaction out of me. Which is more than can be said of those poor saps you’re employed to “engage” with crap like this.

What were you thinking when you wrote them?

Were you thinking when you wrote them?

Did you actually write them?

Or did you just recycle them from last month’s edition of Bulletin from the Blokes Who Pay Your Wages?

Or maybe you pushed a selection of the corporate lexicon’s greatest hits into the internal comms sausage-making machine and set the button to “bland”?

The setting that takes your firm’s most overused verbs (enable, deliver, commit etc) and puts -ing at the end of them.

Yes, notice that ubiquitous -ing form. Known by those with a more expensive education than mine as a gerund. Known by me as a verb behaving like a noun. Known by you as a doing word pretending to be a person-place-or-thing word.

Don’t try to argue your -ing word is really a present participle and therefore a dynamic, actiony verb.

Because I can’t see anyone specific doing any delivering, enabling, committing etc in those headlines.

What you really wanted to say was the enablement of talent, the celebration of success, the delivery of an outstanding experience and so on. But that’s not how the corporate formula goes, is it?

Besides, I know you feel more comfortable with nouns. All corporate types feel more comfortable with nouns. I’ve come across too many platforms for the delivery of excellence and frameworks for the execution of solutions to believe otherwise.

So here’s a suggestion: stop writing headlines on autopilot and start learning from the professionals. Here’s a selection of today’s most-read articles on some UK news sites:

Shop sells breast milk ice cream (BBC)
Fox lived in the Shard skyscraper (BBC)
I see my girlfriend just once a fortnight but she refuses to have sex as soon as I arrive (Guardian)
Fox News boss persuaded fellow executive to ‘lie’ to federal investigators (Guardian)
NZ earthquake latest: TV presenters perish (Times)
Celebrity Watch: Top Gear, I’m not taking it any more (Times)
Saudi ‘Royal gift’ fails to woo activists (Financial Times)
Nervous China puts security apparatus into overdrive (Financial Times)
Crude prices slip, allowing stocks to recover (Financial Times)
Libyan uprising closes round Tripoli (Financial Times)

Notice how there’s not a single -ing word in sight. Instead we have all those lovely, active, present tense verbs doing most of the work: sells, refuses, perish, slip, closes and so on.

See, too, how every headline gives a clear idea of what the story’s about, compelling you to learn more. No vague statements about commitment, success or enablement.

(Thanks for coming back to me after checking out that story on the breast milk, by the way.)

So next time you’re writing a headline, try to steer clear of those -ing words – they’re a sure sign you’re lapsing into lazy ways and drawing on your trusty old collection of corporate clichés.

And give me a reason to read on by telling me what to expect. You never know, those guys in the business might start to respect you more if you start compelling people to actually read your stuff. Of course, the problem could lie with the dullness of the story itself – but that’s for another time.

Now, I know you’re desperate to find out more about that guy with the girlfriend, so I’ll leave it there.

p.s. The only one of your headlines I’m vaguely intrigued by is Committing ourselves. But not, I suspect, for the reason you intended.

11 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Brad Shorr says:

    Excellent advice as usual, Clare. Unless you are writing about Bing.

  2. Karl Roche says:

    OK, I’m off to read The Guardian.. that is funny.

    Great points..

  3. Janna Ostoya says:

    I was more interested in ‘Fox News boss persuaded fellow executive to ‘lie’ to federal investigators’. What does this say about me?

    Good advice.

  4. Another post with a bit of zing. I’m sorry to describe it thus but if we were to remove the -ing we’d end up with a big Z. It’s certainly not that!

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Clare Lynch and Patti Shank PhD CPT, Stratton Craig. Stratton Craig said: RT @goodcopybadcopy: On my blog today: some tough love for that lazy headline writer in internal comms […]

  6. The seventh headline of your examples contains the word “taking” and the last headline also contains an “-ing” word, uprising. Otherwise a very instructive post.

  7. LQ says:

    I’m afraid this is nonsense. The first few examples are content-free. The last few examples are content-rich (and sensational). Leaving aside a few grammatical confusions in your post (i.e., “lived” is certainly not present tense), the verb form has nothing to do with it. To wit:

    Imagine these as blog titles with -ing. They’re not improved in any particular way, but I don’t think it hurts their appeal —

    Have you heard about the shop selling breast milk ice cream?
    A fox is living in the Shard skyscraper
    Fox News misbehaving again: boss persuaded fellow executive to ‘lie’ to federal
    Celebrity Watch: Top Gear, I’m not taking it any more (oh, it’s already done for me!)
    Saudi ‘Royal gift’ failing to woo activists
    Crude prices slip, allowing stocks to recover (ditto)

    Conversely, the real critical point here (“a clear idea of what the story’s about, compelling you to learn more”) was buried in your post. We could make these decent subjects by making them specific, independent of what verb form suits the content. Their real crimes are that they don’t say anything.

    Enabling talent: Damaging myths you’re still clinging to
    Why developing the new portal is nothing like we thought it would be
    Bringing information to life through business comic books — no joke!

    At the same time, subjects like Enable talent, Bring information to life, and Celebrate Success! are really no improvement.

    I wrote those as an example. The key is to focus on thoughtful, descriptive, attractive content and pick the verb form that fits the message. Don’t get hung up on details like avoiding -ing.

  8. Clare Lynch says:

    Brad – Thanks! What’s Bing?

    Karl – Thanks! I hope the Guardian story lived up to the promise of the headline…

    Janna – I think it says you’re a better person than the rest of us.

    Peter – Your fondness for wordplay makes me wonder if you’ve ever considered a job as a headline writer on The Sun.

    Skeptical Scalpel – Good spots. You live up to your fabulously precise name. In my defence, the headline for the Libyan story has a powerful verb, “closes”, doing all the work, while the -ing in the Top Gear headline is a continuous present rather than a gerund. Serves me right for dumbing down by boiling the whole post down to “avoid -ing”!

    LQ – You make some good points (if a little aggressively). Some comments:

    “Leaving aside a few grammatical confusions in your post (i.e., “lived” is certainly not present tense), the verb form has nothing to do with it.”

    At no point did I suggest that “lived” is present tense – the words I cited from the headlines were all present tense. An oversight, perhaps, that one of the headlines contained an active past tense. But to suggest that someone who has demonstrated an understanding of the gerund is confused about the difference between past and present tense is laughable.

    Incidentally, if you’re in the habit of citing other people’s supposed grammatical errors, your arguments might be stronger if you were to learn the difference between “ie” and “eg”.

    “At the same time, subjects like Enable talent, Bring information to life, and Celebrate Success! are really no improvement.”

    I never suggested they were! The point is that the -ing formula is always the formula corporate writers go for. They always choose the gerund, not the imperative.

    “Don’t get hung up on details like avoiding -ing”

    I chose to focus on this detail because it’s so rife. It may not be the cause of the bland headline (as we agree – that’s that the headlines are so unspecific), but it is a common symptom. For someone less articulate than you, being able to spot the symptom is a good first step. My hope is that whenever a corporate writer uses the -ing headline as a first attempt, they will stop and ask “Can I do this better?”.

  9. SJ says:

    Clare – I think I am in love …. 🙂

    Great post, great subject and excellent rantage (please don’t write in).

  10. LostinComms says:

    Uh oh – spotted myself in several of those examples… specifically ‘Celebrating Success’. Will now retire to the stationery cupboard to flog myself with a box of biros. Great blog -wish I’d discovered it sooner.

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