How To Use Headlines To Get To "One Thought"

Haven’t you stood in the wrong supermarket queue before?

Every other queue seems to move ahead, but no, you had to pick the wrong queue. And there you are, stuck as ever, cursing your luck.

Because even though you’re in no hurry to get anywhere, you still don’t like to be stuck in the slow queue. And of course, when you’re writing, you can get stuck forever if you don’t get to the one thought right away.

So what’s the one thought?

The one thought is often a single word or a phrase that binds the entire article together. So if you had a word like ‘reject’, what ideas come to your mind when you hear the word ‘reject’? You could think of the Ugly Duckling and how it was rejected. Or you could think about how you were left out of school games. Or a dozen other examples.

But what brings those dozens of examples to life?

It’s the one thought that does it. Once you have nailed down your one thought, you know exactly what you’re writing about, no matter if you’re writing an article, doing a presentation or lecturing your kid. But even if we do understand that it’s important to boil everything down to one thought, we often seem to struggle to get to that one thought. So how do you speed up getting to that one thought?

Let’s pick three ways:

1) Find the adjective or verb in your headline
2) Look for the specifics in the headline
3) Break up your headline into tiny parts

1) Find the adjective

If you happen to be one of those who writes the headline before they write the article, you’re in luck—but only if your headline has an adjective or verb (um, all headlines have at least one of them). So let’s take a look at a few headlines:

a- Are You Using This Emergency Email Tactic In Your Marketing?
b- How Ego-Killers Drive Clients Away
c- Do Long or Short Headlines Work Better?

In the first headline, we have ’emergency’. Now can’t you think of at least two dozen examples or case studies of emergencies? If you don’t want to tell a personal story, go to the Economist. Or go to a magazine like Rolling Stone. And there you’ll find an emergency. Rephrase the case study or story and you’re good to go.

In the second headline, we don’t have an adjective. We have a verb kinda combination of ‘drive away’. Now you drive mosquitoes away, nasty salesmen away and someone in history drove the Beatles away as well. Again, there’s no limit to the examples.

But in the third headline, we have two adjectives. So which one do we choose?

It doesn’t matter. You just pick one and drive home the point with that one adjective. So if you’re talking about an analogy which involves long, you talk about how you were bored at a long speech, or how long the journey seemed when you were driving, or some other long story. Later you can bring in the short aspect of it and contrast nicely.

But that’s just one way. The other way is to look for the specifics in your headline.

2) Look for the specifics in the headline

Specifics are simply adjectives that drive home a fact with more impact. So let’s look at some examples:

a- How to Make Sure You Get Paid On Time
b- How to Write an Article in 33 Minutes or Less
c- The 70% Principle: Why You Never Get Projects Off The Ground

The first headline was ‘on time’. The second was ’33 minutes or less’. The third was just ‘70%’. Now you can easily think of instances of being on time or things that were on time. For instance, the entire train system in Japan is ruthlessly on time, down to the last minute. Or if we look at ’33 minutes or less’, we can think of many things that we can do or that have been done in 33 minutes or less (e.g. eating a meal, going for a walk, etc.). And the same applies to 70%. So if you find the specifics in the headline, you’ll find an analogy or story that fits just right. And you’re on your way.

But if you’re still stuck, there’s a third way.

3) Break up your headline into tiny parts

Let’s say you’re writing about how you need to beef up the security on your website.

So let’s break that up:

– how you need to
– beef up
– security
– on your website
– how you need to (no story or analogy there–and no ‘one’ thought)
– beef up (yes, there’s one thought here:  beefing up)
– security (yes, there’s one though here, too:  security)
– on your website (no thought or story there)

So now we have two thoughts we can work on

1) Beefing up
2) Security

Either one can be the first fifty words.

But let’s get some analogies and stories.

Example 1: Beefing up

– Eating a ton of carbs before the marathon
– Getting ready for the storm
– Saving money for a rainy day
– Why Posh Spice almost starves herself

Example 2: Security

– The day I failed to lock my motorcycle and it got stolen.
– When my father’s bags were robbed from the car.
– Why in New Zealand our doors are open most of the time.

So you see what’s happening?

1) We first isolated the words in the sentence.
2) We then figured out which ones we could work with.
3) We came up with analogies or stories based on one thought.
4) We found stories that were pro-security and pro-beefing up, or anti-beefing up and anti-security.

And so we have three ways to use headlines to get us to the one thought. But we can still run into trouble pretty easily by being too obvious.

What’s too obvious?

If your headline has the term juggle in it, you’ll think of juggler. That’s terribly obvious and doesn’t create a ton of excitement. But you can create a bit of excitement by going the opposite way and talking about when juggling went wrong.

The easiest way to stay away from the obvious is to go the opposite way. If the one word you have is ‘kind’, then move your story or analogy to ‘rude’ or ‘cruel’. Of course, this is only one way of avoiding the obvious.

Take a little help from search engines

Another way is to take your one word and look up Google images, and see the results you get. You may get a great idea right away or you may get inspiration for another idea. As for me, I like going to the thesaurus as well, because it brings up related words. That helps me to think of the same word in a different way. And all of these systems:  using the opposite, using Google images and a thesaurus, all work towards helping you stay away from the obvious.

So let’s summarize:

1) Find the adjective or verb in your headline
2) Look for the specifics in the headline
3) Split up your headline into bits

The headline can be the key to your one thought. And it can greatly speed up your process. It’s almost like being stuck in the wrong queue at the supermarket and then, magically, a new counter opens up.

Goodbye ‘stuckness’. Hello headlines!


About the author:

Sean D’Souza is a writer, marketing guru and expert on sales psychology. To read more articles by Sean, and get a very useful free report on “Why Headlines Fail”, go to

About the author

Sean D'Souza

Sean D'Souza is a writer, marketing guru and expert on sales psychology. Read more by Sean on