OK, so we know people read the headline first. But why?

graffiti

Did you read this?

You’re looking out of the window of a train travelling through the outskirts of a city. You see colourful graffiti on the walls outside. You can’t help reading it even though you don’t want to.

Once you know how to read, you can’t NOT read. You just can’t turn off the reading bit of your brain. And that’s why the graffiti is there – big, bold and colourful. Because the artist wants you to read it.

Equally, you can’t NOT read the headlines on the big poster adverts you pass by when you’re driving, or the posters on bus-stops as you walk along the pavement.

At journalism school, we were taught that people read the headline first (and picture captions second). Copyblogger says headlines account for 80-90% of the success of any marketing message. If your headline doesn’t grab attention, no-one will read the rest of your marketing message, email or blog post.

You should therefore make your headlines big, bold and colourful so that people can’t avoid reading them. But what do you write in them?

I’ve just read the book Presentation Genius by Simon Raybould, which contains 40 insights from the science of presenting. Some of the insights relate to copywriting too. For example, chapter 1 talks about the ‘primacy effect’, where information presented early in a debate weighs more heavily than information presented later.

Philip Tetlock conducted research at the University of California in the early 1980s, where 72 undergraduates were randomly grouped and given a booklet that contained:

  • instructions
  • descriptive piece about a court case involving a death
  • short piece of background information (so they could understand the evidence)
  • 18 pages of evidence (half supporting a guilty verdict, half supporting a not-guilty verdict)

They had about 30 seconds to read each page.

One set of booklets had the guilty information presented first, another had the not-guilty information, and the third had alternating pages of guilty and not-guilty evidence.

The people who read the guilty information first assumed guilt.

The people who read the not-guilty information first assumed the opposite.

The people who read the information in random order fell between the two other groups.

This means that your headline needs to sum up your key message and set the scene for the information that follows – at a glance. If you need help with that, please let me know.

photo credit: Graffiti via photopin (license)

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