Headline or click-bait? You won’t believe what happened next

Search optimisation enthusiasts claim a good headline must include keywords from the story to win favour with Google’s search engine.

But fixating on key words produces dull and boring headlines. In which case no one will bother to click on your story, even when they find it.

The best headlines involve a play on words, but still tell the reader what they can expect learn.

One of the best ever headlines that does both jobs featured on the front page of the New York Post on April 15, 1983.

“Headless Body in Topless Bar” – a story about a psycho who walked into a strip club in Queens, shot dead the owner and, on learning a female customer was a mortician, ordered her to cut off the victim’s head, which cops later found in the woman’s car.

Truly awful and yet freighted in words delivering a killer headline that told readers the precise nature of the story.

And how about The Sun’s treatment of the Inverness Caledonian Thistle football team’s (nickname: Caley) upset 3-1 victory over the mighty Celtics: Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious.

Business communication is perhaps less fertile ground for such creative wordplay. But that doesn’t mean you should settle for mundane headlines.

These two simple techniques will improve your headlines and grab more readers:

Provoke curiosity

According to psychologist George Loewenstein, not knowing something is cognitively uncomfortable. So when people perceive a gap between what they know and what they want to know, they feel deprived and act to close the gap. Gap theory drives the thinking behind “you won’t believe what happens next” headlines. Click-bait, right? Let’s not go there. Rather, use the same psychology to motivate readers, combining a familiar subject with the promise of new and surprising developments.

CNBC’s headline on a story about the Brexit appeals to reader curiosity.

Welcome to the world after Brexit: Here’s what happens next

Use numbers

Humans love numbers. They help us to:

  1. Cope with fear of dying, providing a crutch for facing up to infinity and our attempts to grasp the “incomprehensible,” say psychologists
  2. Appeal to our need for concrete information
  3. Anticipate story length
  4. Digest information
  5. Limit choices
  6. Make life easier (what a relief)


Business.com’s post about book publishing reassures readers that learning will be reasonably quick and easy: 7 Steps Authors Use to Launch a Best Seller.

If you can’t be funny, at least promise readers something new.