Do Long or Short Headlines Work Better?

Confused by the Headline?

 

A guest post by Sean DSouza of PsychoTactics.com

Let’s say I told you to go down to the supermarket.

And I gave you directions.

Take the first left, and then take a right at the fifth corner. After which you take a U-Turn at the traffic lights. But don’t miss the right hand turn, which you’ll see right after the roundabout.

Huh?

What just went on there, you wonder…

You see I confused you on purpose. And you knew that. But most of the time, you’re not seeking to confuse customers with your headlines. And yet, time and again, you end up writing headlines that seem to confuse the heck out of everyone.

What’s worse is that you CAN fix the headline in a flash.

If you knew what to do, that is.

So let’s cut the chatter, shall we? Let’s look at why most headlines are confusing. And headlines are confusing, simply because we confuse the thoughts.

Huh, what do thoughts have to do with headlines?

Ok, so why were you confused when I gave you directions in the first paragraph? Yes, there were way too many thoughts involved. So while your brain was trying to hold onto one thought, the second thought stomped in, quickly followed by a third and the fourth.

So let’s look at a confusing headline shall we?

Example: Is your personal services business struggling to find enough new clients because you are making these classic mistakes with your best clients?

So how many thoughts did you detect in the line above? Let’s see.

Thought 1: Struggling to find enough new clients.
Thought 2: Making classic mistakes with your clients.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!

Now let’s separate these thoughts and rewrite them

Headline 1: Are you struggling to find new consulting clients?
Headline 2: Are you making these classic mistakes with your clients?

But, but, but you say…

Because what I’ve effectively done is treated the concept as two headlines, when in fact the writer wanted to write one headline—and convey the exact thoughts above.

So how do we use both thoughts without losing the gist of the concept?

Why, that’s easy. You don’t write it all in one headline.

That’s the biggest reason why you have sub-headlines.
I’ll say it again. That’s why you have sub-headlines.

So yeah, if you’re that peachy keen to get the very same thought in the headline you just go choppity chop, and split the headline down the center!

And here’s what you’ll get:

Are you struggling to find new consulting clients?
(How to avoid making these classic mistakes when prospecting)

See what just happened above?

We took two mangled thoughts, and separated them. We bathed them, freshened the thoughts up a bit, and re-presented it without any confusion.

Confusion that begins once you start exceeding 14-16 words. Or to put it another way, your headlines shouldn’t exceed 14-16 words.

Come to think of it, none of your lines should exceed 14 words. Why? Because a line represents a thought. And when you write a line that exceeds 14 words, guess what happens?

Yes, another thought sneaks in through the cracks. Before you know it, a couple or even a trio of thoughts have taken residence. And then your brain feels like a grocery list you can’t remember.

Imagine having a page, full of grocery lists you can’t remember

You’re trying to get an idea across, but your client reading the information is inundated with multiple thoughts. And instantly, their brain starts going into shut-down mode. This of course, is the last thing you want.

And we haven’t even taken the visual aspect into consideration

We are visual creatures. When we see too much, our brain presses the ‘exit, exit’ button and wants to get out in a massive hurry.

The longer, denser, and more clumped your headlines, lines, and paragraphs turn out to be, the less it’s going to get read.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that you write less. What I’m suggesting is that you do the following.

a) Keep your headlines (and lines) focused on one thought.
b) Keep your lines visually short. It helps readability.
c) Keep adequate spacing between your paragraphs to avoid overload.

This simple act of brevity causes your reader to focus on what you really want to tell them.

Don’t get intimidated with length or lack of length of your headline.

Concentrate on the power of the thought.

Um…one, one thought will do just fine!

Read more top stuff by Sean DSouza on PsychoTactics.com

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10 Responses to “Do Long or Short Headlines Work Better?”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Brevity – what a concept!

    It’s amazing how many people think you have to cram everything into one line, paragraph, post, etc. when you should instead be breaking your writing up and making it easier to read and understand.

    Like you mention in the post, longer headlines and paragraphs just scare readers off. It’s too much work to read them – people will just move on to the next blog. And obviously, when you’ve put so much hard work into a post, that’s never the goal.

    Anyway, thanks for the post, Sean. Interesting read!

  2. M says:

    This was an informative read.

  3. Susan French says:

    So unbelievably helpful. So specific too. This post addresses questions and concerns I have for a long time, especially for writing on the internet. Understanding how the brain reacts visually and how it reacts when overloaded is really, really relevant. Thank you.

    • I resonate with your comment about “overload.” My very first website was so wordy, because I felt everything needed to be explained and spelled out. People kept saying it was too complicated, and I fought back by saying how I was worried it would be confusing if I shortened it! Turns out the shorter and fewer words I used, the better!

  4. J.J. Lancer says:

    I’ve recently been looking at my blog post headlines and wondering how I could make them more intriguing. This article helped me solve one of the problems I’ve encountered! Very useful article.

    Thanks!

  5. Hi Sean,

    I have been experimenting with long headlines and short headlines, and I haven’t really found the answer to the question yet… well, until I read your post. My focus have always been to explain a blog post by using the headline. But, I have also thought about adding a cliffhanger/teaser in the headline so that people wanted to check out my blog post to see what I was really talking about. Sometimes with this in my mind, the headline just got confusing :)

    Thanks a lot for sharing this.

    Jens

  6. For me, it is SO easy to write a long headline, and it takes great effort to make a short headline. But whenever I spend time (even up to a day!) whittling it down, revising, whittling, revising, it is almost always worth it. If I had a natural knack for short headlines (and writing concisely, etc.) I’m sure I could get fast at it, but even though it takes me a long time, I’m always pleased when I rewrite it down to a short headline. Isn’t it the coolest thing to have a really short headline, and then a good-sized subtitle (or subheading or whatever it is called)? Visually, I like the look of that.

  7. Gotta say that I LOVE your insights on article headlines. It really is an interesting topic and one that I try to convey to my clients all the time.

    I’ve got to agree with sell textbooks post above. I would love to find a tactic that can help put my mindset where I think of short headlines before the longer ones… that my friends would be priceless! :)

    PsychoTactics rocks! Keep the content coming Sean!

  8. Jean says:

    More focus does help in my opinion. Still though some authors are able to get away with a lack of focus and misdirection like your first paragraph example. I guess its all about finding what works for you.

    -Jean

  9. AIEEE 2012 says:

    Like you mention in the post, longer headlines and paragraphs just scare readers off. It’s too much work to read them – people will just move on to the next blog. And obviously, when you’ve put so much hard work into a post, that’s never the goal.