Ace Your Next Feature Headline

December 1, 2016

When Happy, a Bronx Zoo elephant, and two of her cohorts were given a mirror, they used it to look inside their mouths and study their ears — signs they’re self-aware and cognitively elite, researchers said.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s headline for this story: “She’s Happy — and She Knows It.”

Aaaaaaaah! Surprise and delight readers with feature headlines.

Feature heads:

  • Are preferred by readers, according to a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Athens.
  • Are more interesting, easier to understand and more memorable, according to a Texas A&M study.
  •   Top the list of story elements that convince browsers to read, according to a 2012 Harris Interactive Poll.

Need ideas and inspiration for feature heads? I get mine from the winners of the American Copy Editors Society’s (ACES) headline contest. Here are six techniques to steal from them:

1. Reapply a phrase. Give a familiar phrase new meaning when you apply it to a new topic. When two major studies found that the health benefits of eating seafood outweighed the risk of mercury exposure, Minneapolis Star Tribune copy editors wrote this headline: “Don’t Be Chicken of the Sea.”

2. Sound off with a sound bite. What would your friends say about the topic you’re writing about? Make that colloquialism your headline. When Austin American-Statesman copy editors produced a story about how families fight over inheritances, for instance, they crafted this headline package:

Splitting Heirs
Dad said I could have that toaster!
You can’t have Mom’s pearl earrings!
That’s my refrigerator!
Sound familiar? Family grief doesn’t have to lead to a family feud.

3. Alliterate a little. Make your headline lyrical with this rhetorical technique. Scripps Newspapers earned an ACES award for a portfolio including this headline package:

Shiatsu for Your Shih Tzu?
Certified massage therapist’s skills go straight to the dogs in Camarillo.

4. Ask a question. Draw readers in with a provocative query, like this one that almost sounds like a joke setup, from the Salt Lake Tribune:

What Do You Get When You Cross a Human With a Mouse?
A narrowing of laws on manipulating life, patent applicants hope.

5. Use graphic wordplay. When the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a photo of a sign that was missing its “R’s,” copy editors wrote this headline:  “Thief St ikes Again.”

6. Rhyme with reason. When the Minneapolis Star Tribune covered new, healthier lunch options in a local school district, copy editors came up with this riff on Dr. Seuss:

Could you, would you, try the beets?
Would you eat veggies at your school?
Would you say jicama is cool?
Yes we will eat them in our school!
Jicama is very cool!

Clearly, there’s something in the water in Minneapolis. So, if you want to write better feature headlines, move there. Get a job as a copy editor at the Tribune.

Or, you could model these ACES headline writers to craft your own winning feature heads. 

Copyright © 2016 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.

Make Your Copy More Creative

Would you like to learn more ways to surprise and delight your readers with wordplay and other creative techniques? If so, please join Ann at Master the Art of the Storyteller — a two-day Master Class on Feb. 23-24 in Los Angeles. PRSA members: Save $100 with coupon code PRSA17.

Ann Wylie

Ann Wylie (WylieComm.com) works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at ann@WylieComm.com.

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