How to Create Great Headlines with the Breath Test

Do long headlines work? Or are short headlines better?

The answer doesn’t lie in length. It lies in the ability to say the headline aloud in one breath. Let’s assume you sit down and write an absolute stunner of a headline, your next job is to read it back aloud.

Can you read it?

Ok then say this headline aloud: HOW To Recognise Six Difficult Telltale Signs Of Disinterest And Lack Of Motivation In Your Student And Customer.

Ran out of breath, didn’t you? And even if you didn’t quite run out of breath, you’ll still struggle to recall the contents of that headline. And the reason why you need to read the headline aloud, is because that’s what the customer is doing anyway. And if you can’t say it one in breath, you can’t hear it in one breath.

And as a result the headline message gets garbled.

So let’s look at some of the most enduring headlines ever…

1) How to make friends and influence people.

2) Do you make these mistakes in English?

3) They laughed when I sat down at the piano. But when I started to play…

Ooh, that last one was a mouthful, wasn’t it?

No matter how you try, it’s hard to say: “They laughed when I sat down at the piano. But when I started to play…” in one breath. So what’s going on here? How come this headline works when it clearly fails the breath test?

It’s called punctuation

If you have a long headline, all you have to do is punctuate. How you punctuate it is totally up to you. You can use brackets. Or an em dash. Or a comma.

So the same headline can read like this:

They laughed when I sat down at the piano (But when I started to play…)

They laughed when I sat down at the piano—but when I started to play…

They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play…

And a good reason for the existence of punctuation is to have pauses. When you have that pause in-built into your headline, a reader can read it as if it were two sentences. So even though it looks like one big sentence, it’s really two.

There are lots of things that can cause a perfectly good headline to become perfectly useless. And instead of debating long and hard about the length of headlines, just do the breath test. If it fails, add some punctuation. If it still fails, dump the headline and start again. 😉

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 PsychoTactics.com


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