(How to) Write a Headline and Become a Media Star

by · May 9, 201312 comments

This ain’t Back to the Future. It’s Top Gun. We’re going time traveling—backwards. You with me? Here we go…

Is that Whitney Houston on the radio? Great song. Crank it. Oh, and did you hear? Mike Tyson’s the youngest heavyweight champ ever and the USSR doesn’t want to fight.

Aviator glasses? Right on. You don’t look quite as slick as “Maverick”  (Tom Cruise in “Top Gun”), but those screaming neon-colored parachute pants and your big hair are just perfect.

We’ve arrived. It’s 1986. Let’s get to work.

We’re in some ad agency’s conference room. Lots of brass. Lots of glass. The chairs are cozy. In class are 12 folks who hope to be transformed into advertising copywriter superstars. We paid over $100 to become David Ogilvy and we’re not leaving until we’re have the chops to dominate the world—or at least the world of advertising.

The teacher is a creative director, a real life Don Draper. Ooh. Aah. To me, the job title sounds more bitchin’ than heavyweight champion of the world. You would think I’d remember this legend’s name. I don’t. I’m actually happy I remember my own.

I do remember the lesson he gave. I always will.

The goal is to cruise Madison Avenue in a Rolls Royce.

Nike has set the bar high in consumer advertising. Rolling Stone is running one of the snappiest B2B print campaigns ever (“Perception/Reality”). Us students want to know how to do stuff like that.

Where do you begin?

Nail down a USP.

The teacher says you begin with a thing called the “unique selling proposition,” or USP. He says every company, product or service must have one. Then he tells us his simple process for getting it down on paper.

He uncaps a pleasant-smelling dry erase marker and writes:

How to ________________________________ .

The benefit goes in the blank.

Pencils down please. We’re not ready to write. First, we need to understand the difference between a feature and a benefit. The teacher reels off a real world example. I remember this one exactly as he said it:

  • Feature: McDonald’s has drive-up windows.
  • Benefit: You can grab a quick breakfast on the way to work without dragging your ass out of the car.

Because I’m a cagey old ad guy and it’s not really 1986, I’ll toss in my own era-appropriate example.

  • Feature: CERTS breath mints have Retsyn (scientific sounding ingredients were very hip at the time, even if they were complete BS.)
  • Benefit:  People will want to kiss you.

So now we’re going to learn…

How to write a great headline.

“How to write a great headline” is not a great headline. The words I chose there, “great headline,” merely describe a feature. According to the teacher, a great headline reveals a benefit.

So here’s a second stab. How to get people to read your ad/email/article.

Ding. We have a winner.

You try it now. Use your product or service. Notice its features. It might be shiny, powerful, scalable, reliable, user-friendly (always hated that term), 100% natural, made in the U.S.A., grown on a tropical island, cheap to buy or free to try.

All these things might be good news, but they’re not benefits and therefore, not headline material. They’re features.

Features are duller than dull. Your job as a great marketing writer is not to begin the story by telling me about the shoes soft supple leather. I don’t care. Tell me they feel good on my feet. Now I’m listening.

Get out your sharpest pencil now.

Try it….

How to ________________________________ .

Stick a benefit in there, a reason to care.

Well done.

Class is almost over.

I want to thank you again for trekking back in time with me. Now, here’s the lesson I learned on that day in 1986 and share with you just 27 short years later.

Fill in the blank that follows “how to” and you have your unique selling proposition.

And it gets even better. You may have your headline too. Think of how many headlines begin with those two words.

“How to” is the formula of formulas. It’s not a creative or unique headline writing technique, but it’s great bait bound to hook readers. It’s why we read non-fiction. We want to know how to do something. Don’t fight it.

And so then, with media stardom and world domination in mind, you unleash the creative juices. You work on writing a better, more unique headline than “How to (blank). Ideas should come. If they don’t, you have a killer fallback position with “How to (blank). It’ll do the trick.

So it works like this.

Dateline: 2013. In addition to contributing educational (and opinionated) articles like this one to sites like this one, I actually sell my time and talent as a copywriter, creative director and content marketer. As such, I need to help clients cut through the crap and establish a clear USP, and then, bake tasty headlines based on it.

When I ask clients, “what’s your USP?” you might not believe how often the room goes silent.

Know what I do? I head for the whiteboard, uncap the marker and write those two little magic words. I say we’re going to fill in the blank first and then get to the creative part second. No “how to” statement, no go. It’s that simple.

Now, here’s one more interesting little headline writing secret I’ve discovered. If the time-tested “how to” feels worn out and cliché, I offer an easy alternative.

When you’ve filled in the blank with an effective benefit, you can go back and strike the words “how” and “to.” What you’re left with is a headline that starts with a verb.

Check it out…

How to finish your blog post with a memorable last line.

Strike “how to.”

How to finish your blog post with a memorable last line.

Ta-da:

Finish your blog post with a memorable last line.

Works every time.

This will be fun. Treat the comment section below as your whiteboard. Resist the temptation to feature a feature. Leave a comment that is: “How to [benefit of your product].” Thank you for playing.

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About Barry Feldman

Barry Feldman

Barry Feldman creates compelling content by telling stories. He's a freelance copywriter, creative director, content marketing consultant, and an alright guy. He specializes in persuasion and engagement and has authored the eBooks "21 Pointers to Sharpen Your Website" and "The Plan to Grow Your Business with Effective Online Marketing" to help improve your online marketing. If you would like a piece of his mind, visit Feldman Creative and his blog,  The Point.

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  • http://indispensablemarketing.com/ Patrick McFadden

    It’s in my notes. Thanks for this awesome tip. As a blogger I love to keep growing and learning. I fully understand the importance of an strong title. It is like a newspaper headline: If prospective readers are intrigued, they keep reading. If they don’t, they move on to the next blog post.

  • Dara Khajavi

    I write press releases and blogs quite frequently. I definitely needed this advice. Thanks for the post!

  • http://www.yepi6.org/ yepi6

    I like your article, I want to become a successful person in the media.

    • http://www.feldmancreative.com/ Barry Feldman

      Thanks. Deliver value, consistently, and the success shall come.

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  • Anna Pham

    Those are very useful tips, yet simple but seems to work evertime. Thank for sharing.

  • Justy@Sublime

    Get More Customers AND Keep Your Shirt!

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  • Lena Kennedy

    (How to) Take the First Steps in Creating an Engaging Online Presence

    Although I’ve heard several of these points before, they definitely bear repeating. We all need a reminder now and then, don’t we?

    You painted quite a mental picture in this article – I had to keep reading to see where you were going!

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