Let’s look at the ingredients of a good headline:
Headlines should reveal something of interest, not merely label a situation. It could be news in the journalistic sense (Last Night’s Deep Freeze Sent Crowds of Homeless to Our Shelter). Or a personal story (Nick Says His Chemo Is Like Being “Rescued by a Monster”).
Make headlines about people, not situations. Instead of Drought Strikes Northeast Africa, make it Families Flee Worsening Drought.
3) Strong verbs.
Use one- or two-syllable verbs that show action in a concrete, sensory way. Words like blast, climb, dance, flee, grab, jolt, limp, mumble, plunge, race, scamper, tear, wander, yell. Notice how these words sound like some kind of conflict is going on? That brings us to the next ingredient…
The best headlines (and the stories people want to read) feature conflict.
The most fascinating thing about people is their relationships. Use headlines to show how people are connected. Relationship words like Mom, Son, Baby, or profession words like Teacher or Soldier make headlines more interesting.
As often as possible, address your reader.
Don’t put a period at the end of a headline (it means stop). Go easy on exclamation marks (but don’t be afraid to use them). Think twice before asking a question in a headline. If the answer is a simple yes or no, or the question is uninteresting, it falls flat.
For envelope teasers and email subject lines — places where the reader must take action to get to the rest of the message — it’s often best not to tell the news. Instead, create a sense of mystery. One of the most effective envelope teasers I ever wrote was Letter Enclosed.
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About the Author
Jeff Brooks has served the nonprofit community for more than 25 years, working as a writer and creative director on behalf of large and small nonprofits, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, World Vision, Feeding America, Project HOPE, and dozens of urban rescue missions and Salvation Army divisions. He has planned and executed hundreds of campaigns in direct mail, print, radio, the internet, and other media that have motivated millions of donors to help make the world a better place.
He blogs at futurefundraisingnow.com, and is the author of three books: The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications, The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand, and How to Turn Your Words into Money.