I Tested Artists, Journalists, Moms, Comedians, Engineers. Which Group Was The Best At Headline Writing?

Without a doubt, there is a reigning Queen of virality. No, it’s not length. It’s not humor. It’s not production value. And it’s not even the quality of the piece of content. It’s the packaging.

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Absolutely masterful Twitter packaging by Orion Jones and the gang at Big Think.

The packaging is the user’s first point of contact with a piece (and perhaps even your site) and is the make-or-break factor in the decision to click. Content doesn’t stand a chance if the package can’t seal the click first.

The package components vary depending on the distribution channel. For example,

  • On Facebook, that’s a headline, image, and share text.
  • On email, that’s a headline, teaser text, hyperlink and possibly an image.
  • On a homepage, that’s probably a headline and image.

All of these components help to get that initial click, but the headline is by far the most important. Writing a great headline is every bit as important as writing a great story because without a click, the story never gets read. And that begs the question: who is the most suited to write headlines? How do we staff great headline writers in our newsrooms and organizations?
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One of my all-time favorite headlines, written by yours truly. 🙂

Over the years, I’ve scoured the earth for the best headline writers.  I have sifted through thousands of resumes. I have issued headline writing tests to hundreds of people. I have assessed and trained hundreds of people in this particular skill. I’ve looked at academics, software developers, advocates, engineers, musicians, comedians, journalists, stay-at-home parents, actors, students, and artists.

I have found over and over that there is one group of people who are consistently PHENOMENAL headline writers…and there is one group who are consistently, um, NOT phenomenal headline writers.

The best ones? Improv comedians.
The not-so-best ones? Journalists.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of things journalists can do that improvers, frankly, suck at. Like proper research. Creating a complete sentence with correct use of commas. Not getting the whole site sued for defamation (Improvers just. can’t. resist. a good joke.). These things are imperative.

And I’m also not saying that some journalists can’t be good headline writers or that some improvers can’t be bad headline writers. But after sifting through thousands of resumes and headline tests, my conclusion remains consistent: journalists are not only the worst headline writers from the outset, they’re also the hardest to train to write good headlines in the same amount of time it takes to train other people on average.

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Crazy-successful packaging by Adam Albright-Hanna, former comedy writer.

How could this be? If journalists can write great content, why can’t they write great headlines? I have some working theories but take these things with a grain of salt. I’m still trying to pinpoint it and may never fully get there. But from what I can tell, journalists have a few specific setbacks for headline writing:

  1. Journalists may be over-invested in their point of view. This may seem strange since journalists aren’t supposed to have a POV. But what I’ve found through years of experience is that journalists want to craft a story in a certain way and they are really invested in readers receiving the story that one way. Improv-ers, on the other hand, are over-invested in connecting with the audience. The most important indicator of success in comedy is to incite audience response. Improvers will drop their pants, say things that would offend their own mothers, or smack their best friend in order to get the job done.
  2. Journalists don’t practice divergent thinking. In another article, I talk about divergent thinking, which is the most essential skill for good headline writing. It’s different than creative thinking, which is the process of coming up with an original idea. Divergent thinking is the ability to see multiple solutions to the same problem (for example, there could be 200 possible headlines for this story). Journalists usually don’t have a hard time drafting lots of headlines, but they have a really hard time drafting lots of wildly different headlines. Improvers, on the other hand, are used to bouncing around different ideas at the drop of a hat. They are extremely flexible, good at thinking up multiple variations to the same problem on their feet, and frankly, they have a malleable quality to their brains that I haven’t seen matched elsewhere. This isn’t because they are smarter than other people; it’s because they practice that particular skill more than other people. 
  3. Journalists’ training works against them. Because they have formal training in the field, journalists are convinced that the way they’ve always written headlines is the right way to do it. It’s an authority figure issue. After all, didn’t Dr. so-and-so from that fancy university I attended tell me I was excellent at headlines? There’s definitely a clinical name for this, which I’m too lazy to look up, but it has something to do with the confirmation bias issue. This is why training is so hard with journalists because you’re not just training them — you’re retraining them away from their original training (which they paid a lot of money for). Contrast that with the improver’s training, which might say, anything goes, as long as you’re getting people to pay attention.
  4. Journalists have an unconscious but strong fear of change in the industry. Statistically, industry-insiders are the least likely to be early adopters of disruptions in their industry and most likely to be threatened by change. And of course social pressure plays a role: they are worried what colleagues will think of them if they adopt changes before everyone else in their peer group. On the other hand, improvers are used to responding in real time to variable situations. They are used to people thinking they are crazy/stupid/non-conformed. Sometimes, that’s exactly what they’re going for. 
  5. Journalists aren’t accountable for headlines. Often a senior editor changes the headline or writes it altogether after an article is submitted. Journalists don’t spend hours and hours drafting, refining, and studying headlines in the same way that they have spent hours improving their storytelling and research skills. If you don’t feel responsible for a piece of the work, it makes sense that you never become better over time at that piece. Conversely, improvers are responsible for the entire experience, start to finish. They don’t rely on editors to tweak and refine their work; the first impression is their only shot.

Don’t discount the journalists on your team right away. I’ve met a few journalists that are lean, mean headline writing machines. And with training and specific exercises, sometimes they can adapt quickly.

However, when structuring editorial workflow, the best case scenario is that the person who actually makes the media or writes the article also drafts the headlines. But headlines must be high quality or you can kiss your traffic goodbye. In the cases where training doesn’t help, it’s ok to shift the headline writing responsibility into another department or frankly, onto anyone in your company that’s good at it.

Good luck! ‘Til next time.

-S

 

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