There’s a lot to be said for a great heading, a snappy title or an eye-catching headline.
It just gets things off to a really good start. It can even lure in an unsuspecting reader who may otherwise never have ventured near the text written beneath it.
A clever, punchy or witty heading can liven up even the most pedestrian paragraph – not that you should ever settle for such a state of affairs of course.
Quite often we can get so carried away with producing vast swathes of copy that we neglect the sheer impact a carefully chosen sub-heading or title can have on our readers. It’s the written equivalent of a cheery wave, or a sudden shout from an unexpected source: “Hiya – you’ll never guess what…” It grabs your attention, forces you to take notice, and intrigues you to read on.
I was faced with this kind of challenge to liven up proceedings when designing and delivering a two-day training course on effective business writing. Day one covered the basics, including a brief refresher on proper use of grammar and punctuation, and the principles of writing in plain English. The purpose of the course was to equip customer service staff within the Internet industry to write clear, concise emails that met their customers’ needs without baffling them with technical jargon. A tall order you might say, and not on the face of it the most thrilling of topics to teach, or to learn for that matter.
Colonic irritation and apostrophe catastrophes
Well, it wasn’t my only weapon of choice – I employed humour, anecdotes and real gaffes to good effect as well – but I did throw a few carefully chosen headings into the mix to liven up the timetable and get people to focus on the PowerPoint slides. The session on commas, full stops etc was punctuated (ouch) by headings such as ‘Colonic irritation’ and ‘The Apostrophe Catastrophe’, and the exercise that highlighted the confusion caused by words that sound the same but are spelled differently was entitled ‘The principle principal and how its effects affect us’.
I saved my personal favourite for the last session of the day, as attention was naturally flagging a little by then. It covered why writing an email has to be approached differently from writing a letter, and the pitfalls you can face if you don’t take sufficient care over language, tone and style. Only one title could cover those nuances in an interesting way: ‘The email of the species is deadlier than the mail’.
Day two was a bit more interesting, and far more interactive, as people were tasked with putting their learning into practice and writing engaging, grammatically accurate and perfectly plain English emails. There was not quite so much need for livening up, but I did allow myself the indulgence of ‘Rebel without a clause’ for the session on why it’s sometimes OK to break the ‘golden rules of Grammar’ we learned at school.
Similarly a news story or press release can be significantly improved and enlivened by a carefully crafted headline. I’ve not been able to get away with very many in the day job, but I have certainly noticed the effects of a good headline when writing articles for my music blog – How Life Should Sound. When writing a piece about the music streaming service Spotify, I plumped for the controversial heading ‘Is Spotify really killing music … already?’ My article refuted that assertion completely, but using such a provocative statement paid off. It’s still my most read and most searched for article on that blog.
My all-time favourite newspaper headline will take some beating. After John Barnes proved his managerial ineptitude when presiding over Celtic’s Scottish Cup defeat to lowly Inverness Caledonian Thistle, some genius hack or sub-editor had the presence of mind to crown the occasion with the utterly majestic:
“Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious”
To adapt MasterChef’s Greg Wallace: “Headlines don’t get better than this.”