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© Ugur Akinci
“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written the headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar . If you haven’t done some selling in your headline, you have wasted 80 percent of your client’s money.”
~ David Ogilvy
“In a print ad, 75 percent of the buying decisions are made at the headline alone.”
~ John Caples
Writing great headlines is a true art. Some people I suspect are born with the knack of whipping up drop-dead perfect headlines. But then, to some extent, writing good headlines can be taught and learned as well.
Here is the market-tested and foolproof Akinci Method for constructing exciting and powerful headlines:
Follow these steps:
1) Identify the SUBJECT and/or OBJECT of the header.
2) Find a VERB, ADJECTIVE or a NOUN that is LITERALLY related to the object or the subject but also has a FIGURATIVE meaning.
NOTE: Verbs, adjectives and nouns that do not have figurative meanings do not make good choices for eye-catching headlines.
3) Construct a sentence in which the VERB, NOUN (used as an ADVERB to quality the VERB), or the ADJECTIVE is used to modify the OBJECT or the SUBJECT but in its FIGURATIVE sense and in a NEW (and hopefully, humorous) CONTEXT.
The result is usually a great headline with a humorous twist, that throws a new and unexpected light on the subject matter.
Take for example this great headline by the New York Times (June 13, 2007):
“Casinos Go All In To Draw Asians” … Perfect!
“Going all in” is a poker term and represents a situation in which a player risks everything. The writer could have said “Casinos Pull All Stops To Draw Asians”… or “Casinos Risk It All To Draw Asians” but it would not be the same. It would not have the same punch and the same juice.
Here the action phrase “going all in” is perfectly related to the “casinos.” It is also used not in its traditional context of poker but in a new context of marketing. That unexpected cognitive shift injects power to the expression while still closely keeping our attention riveted on the gambling framework.
This technique is almost the linguistic equivalent of taking a familiar object and making an interesting statue out of it, like the way Picasso created a cow’s head from a bicycle seat.
Contrast this power headline with another one used by the Wall Street Journal again to kick-off a gambling story in its June 13, 2007 issue:
“What Happens in Vegas, Goes to China”
We of course know where this headline is coming from — it’s a cute word-play on the Vegas marketing slogan “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.”
But to be aware of this “trick” is not enough to understand what the story is really about. What does it mean something “Going to China”? What is it that goes to China? It is not immediately clear.
For example, this lazy echo of a well-known slogan justifies us to wonder if “extramarital affairs” started in Vegas end up “in China” somehow? It misdirects our attention.
Then we read the accompanying sub-header: “$2.2 Billion Casino Resort Is Part of New Push in Cotai To Lure Gamblers, Travelers”
O-kay… now we see what the header was talking about.
But if a header needs a sub-header to be understood, then it is failing in its primary function of immediately communicating the core summary of the story. Otherwise why open a story with a header at all?
Using a VERB with double meanings
From Wall Street Journal (August 24, 2009):
“Makers of Military Drones Take Off”
The (compound) VERB is “taking off”. It’s definitely (literally) related to the OBJECT of the header: Drones.
But with a semantic shift, the verb is used not in its literal sense but FIGURATIVE sense to point at the success of the makers of the drones. We understand that the “taking off” in question here is not about leaving the earth physically and rising to the sky but in the sense of making money.
Using an ADJECTIVE with double meanings
From Wall Street Journal (August 31, 2009):
“Home Barbering Grows in Recession, with Hairy Results”
The ADJECTIVE “hairy” is related both to the primary VERB of the sentence (“to grow”) and the SUBJECT of the sentence (“home barbering”).
Plus, HAIRY also has TWO meanings: 1) Literal, and 2) Figurative (difficult and complicated).
Result: a perfect news story headline with a humorous twist.
Using a NOUN with double meanings as an ADVERB
Find a NOUN with TWO meanings (literal and figurative) and use that noun as an ADVERB to qualify the VERB of the header.
“Shutting This Wind Tunnel Should Be A Breeze, but Its Fans Won’t Be Silent” (The Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2009)
Here the noun BREEZE, in its figurative usage, also denotes a task accomplished easily. It’s used to qualify the verb SHUTTING.
More Headlines – One Hit, One Miss
Here is a great headline from Wall Street Journal (June 25, 2007):
“Gazprom Pipeline Plan May Fuel Worry”
“Fuel” (noun) is what flows from a pipeline and as a verb it also has a LITERAL meaning of (i) “to energize” and a FIGURATIVE meaning of(ii) “to exacerbate.”
The VERB of the header (fuel) is LITERALLY related to the OBJECT of the header (GazProm Pipeline) but it is used in its FIGURATIVE meaning (exacerbating worry). Right on formula!
But here is a miss from the same issue:
“Milk-Price Rise Expected to Steepen in July”
“Steepen” is not a verb intrinsically related to milk. But milk, when overheated, boils over in a froth. So what about:
“Milk-Price Rise Expected to Froth Over in July”?
That would have been a better headline in my judgment.
Here is another:
“Chinese officials getting real on fakes”
Here the noun FAKES is used in its LITERAL meaning. The writer is talking about fake CDs, fake DVDs and other fake intellectual property products that have flooded China during the last decade.
The composite verb “getting real” is related to the noun “fakes” since “real” is the opposite of “fake”. So another important condition is met: the verb is semantically related to the noun of the header.
And here comes the beautiful twist: “Getting real” is pure FIGURATIVE usage and contrasts very well with the noun “fakes.”