A One-Word Hack for Writing Headlines That Grabs Readers

Todd Brison

Remember history class?

If yours was anything like mine, a middle-aged football coach stood in front of you and rattled off names and dates. America joined World War II in 1941. Abraham Lincoln won the election against Stephen Douglas in 1860. Nat Turner led a slave rebellion and killed 55 people.

And, also if you were anything like me, you had to Google all of those facts 15 years later because you were passing notes and thinking about the pretty redhead you were about to chat up in the next class.

Bad teachers tell you facts. Then, they give tests with questions like:

  • When did America join World War II?
  • Who was our 16th president?
  • What did Nat Turner do?

Are you asleep yet? Me too. Luckily, my fingers are moving.

Notice the words who and what. These are a natural consequence of the way information is presented to you. You are told information. Then you are asked to repeat it. This is an obvious example of the public school system’s failings, but that’s another rant for another time.

An easy change can make the class (and the test)more engaging. Imagine if those same teachers used the words why and how on their tests.

  • Why did America join World War II?
  • How did Abraham Lincoln win the election of 1860?
  • How did Nat Turner’s rebellion change slavery?

These questions open up a world of possibilities. There is no one answer. There are many. And of course, the more you know on the topic, the better answer you can give. Why and how are exploratory words.

This brings us to terrible headlines.

Even good writers often fall into the same trap as bad teachers. When they write headlines, they just tell you things:

  • Google Drive Can Make Your Life Easier
  • Verbal Aikido Can Help You Avoid Stupid Arguments
  • Joe Biden’s Team is Raising the Alarm

Are there good ideas in these articles? Probably. The author likely loaded each one down with information and insightful analysis. But just like the bad history teacher, the bad headline writer is making the mistake of telling the reader things as opposed to making them wonder.

This tragedy happens because all writers are nerds. We get excited about a new idea or viewpoint. We research. We plan. We spin facts of history into delicious prose. Then, we assume everyone wants to know we know.

Sadly, nobody cares.

When you simply tell a person what you think, you will almost assuredly be ignored. Nobody needs to hear another opinion. Luckily, just like the test questions, you can improve a headline with one of two words.

The words are how or why.

When you use either of these words, your headline changes from a dull statement to an intriguing question. Watch how different our headline examples look simply by adding one of these words:

  • How Google Drive Can Make Your Life Easier
  • How Verbal Aikido Can Help You Avoid Stupid Arguments
  • Why Joe Biden’s Team is Raising the Alarm

Most people don’t read at random. They read to get smarter. Instinctively, readers understand that what is told is forgotten, and what is explained is remembered.

How and why move the focus from the facts to the benefits. Look at those headlines again, but this time with the details removed:

  • How (to) Make Your Life Easier
  • How (to) Avoid Stupid Arguments
  • Why an Alarm is Being Raised

Very few people ask I wonder how Google Drive works. Pretty much the whole world asks I wonder how I can make my life easier.

The words how and why open up the possibility that a person who does not care about the facts of the article might be interested in how those facts benefit them.

And ultimately, of course, that’s why people read in the first place. They read to get smarter. They read to think. They read to be entertained. They don’t read to be told things.

You’ve done a lot of work to learn what you write about. Don’t just tell people what you’ve learned. Explain it to them. Take them on a journey. Open up a new world to your readers, and they will repay you their most precious asset — their time.

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