Public Relations Tactics

The verb is the story: Where the action is

January 10, 2012

“A story should be a verb, not a noun,” Byron Dobell, a former editor of Esquire, once said.

And when it comes to your headline, the verb is the story. The sexier the verb, the sexier the story.

Here are five ways to verbify your own headlines to make them stronger and more stimulating:

1. Choose dynamic verbs. If a story is a verb, then something should be happening. Your headline should capture that action.

Chris Smith, the copyediting guru at Entergy Corp., reminds us — in haiku, no less — of what happens when we neglect our verbs:

“Readers stayed away.

Did your headline have a verb? I didn’t think so.”

2. Think about action. Use athletic verbs. Model your action words after these two Wall Street Journal heads:
• Stocks Roar Back Late in Day
• Medicare Flip-Flop Roils Elderly
Use online tools like Visual Thesaurus to find the most muscular verb for your story.

3. Avoid couch potato verbs. Reach beyond lethargic verbs like:
• Launches
• Introduces
• Thanks

And the worst headline verb ever? Announces.

Think about it: If the verb is the story, and your verb is “announces,” then you’re making the announcement of the news — and not the news itself — the story.

4. Don’t drop the verb. Don’t commit verbicide. If a headline is over-edited before publication, then it could sound like this: “Investing to stay ahead of growing demand for wireless calling and data services.”

Hint: If you can find an “-ing” anywhere in your headline, then you need to write another headline.

5. Pass this test. Finally, to make sure that your verb is stimulating, ask:
• Is the verb enticing? Does it telegraph that something interesting is happening?
• Is it the second or third word in the headline, or is it buried behind a nine-word product name or the names of each of your company’s 17 project partners?
• Is it in the active voice? Is it in the present or future tense?

If you can answer “yes” to each of these questions, then your verb — and the story itself — is probably strong. 

Copyright © 2012 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.

Build a solid structure
Want more tips for writing headlines that sell? Join Ann Wylie for “Writing That Sells” on March 29 in Chicago. Find more details here.


Ann Wylie

Ann Wylie ( works with communicators who want to reach more readers and organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at Visit and get more than 2,000 writing tipsheets at


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