You are being manipulated. Right now. Every single day, in fact. It starts from the moment you begin to comprehend the English language and the deception continues until you read your last news article.
These cunning manipulators draw you into stories, features, and online quizzes. They’ll make you click on articles in the Daily Mail. They’ll entice you to read stories about celebrities you hate. And they’ll make you keep reading.
They’ll lead you up alleyways and down garden paths using an arsenal of techniques. You may think you’re in control, but these cunning headline writers are the real puppeteers of your attention span.
So how do they do it? Journalists have been employing a range of tactics to command our attention for years, and many of them are effective because they’re rooted in an understanding of innate human psychology.Convey change
Journalists often like new shiny things. So they like anything that seems “new”; a breakthrough, a threat, an opportunity or some kind of transformation. Why? Because we as readers are programmed to be attuned to change or the threat of change.
Whenever you can, talk about change in an active tense. Talk about the changing tides, the growing army of people, a growing realization. Flag up the end of one era or the beginning of a new one. Declare the “death of Twitter”, for example. You will make people curious.
Whether you’re writing headlines, short form, or long-form, change and the threat of change are two of the biggest drivers of human curiosity. They are also the hook used on many a headline.
Emotional trigger words
We are innately moral creatures who are wired to react emotionally to acts of altruism and selfishness. And we’re psychologically predisposed to be wary of threats. Over the years, we’ve honed our ability to sniff out liars and troublemakers, crooks and charlatans, which is why we’re drawn towards stories that promise to expose the truth.
As readers, we want to know about myths, hidden truths, scandals and surprising facts. This is why we are drawn to exposés and myth- busting articles. Often these articles will have a curiosity rousing word like “secret” “myth”, “hoax” or “truth” in the headline.
Three headlines from the Guardian’s top 200 performing articles over a four-year period contain the word truth in the headline. Try it in yours.
Often you will see the word “right” and “wrong” in a headline for a comment piece. Why? Because these articles appeal to our moral side. We are innately moral creatures trying to make sense of the world and all its complexity. When something happens, our brains seek out moral viewpoints. By promising to offer one in the piece, the article is waving a red rag to our curiosity, regardless of whether we agree with the argument or not.
Predict the future
Go to Google News. Write the word “future” into the search box and you will see thousands of articles. We all want to know more about the future because it’s scary and uncertain. Often the word ‘concerns’, ‘worry’, ‘risk’ will feature alongside. Why? Because it plays on our fears. Journalists are often accused of scaremongering, but the truth is: scaremongering sells papers.
Upworthy rose to eminence stringing together headlines like: “You Won’t Believe What Happened Next ….” etc. “You’ll Die When You See ..” It’s admittedly a tactic it seems to employ less these days, presumably because people are increasingly growing wise to it. But you see this technique mimicked across the internet.
Many of these articles are written about surprises. They are tales of happenings that don’t confirm with our regular expectations. To be successful, the headline needs to give the user enough information to stoke their curiosity without necessarily giving them the whole story.
Some studies have shown that negative modifiers (like worst) lead to more clicks and shares than positive modifiers (like best). Yes really.
The numbered list has almost become a cliche. But they work. Buzzfeed built its empire on its numbered headlines e.g. “15 Reasons Dudes Should Never Do Yoga”. These headlines wouldn’t have stood a chance in newspapers of old, but they have now taken over the internet. What does it mean? It means we respond well to numbers. And, according to some experts – especially odd numbers. They are also perfect for the lazy blogger, allowing you to write without having to think of vaguely intelligent subheadings.
Hyperbolic word selection
Why use a regular old verb when you can use one like “Skewered” “Shocked” or “Slammed”?Words can be evocative. They add drama. Don’t go overboard but try the occasional unusual verb to liven up your writing.
Journalists have been employing this tactic since the dawn of time. A critical remark becomes a roasting. A share price fall is portrayed as a collapse and someone on the receiving end of a telling off gets slammed. A skewering or a slamming is a more evocative way of making a criticism.
Judicious adjective selection also has its place: in journalese a lengthy meeting is often depicted as ‘marathon’ talks.
Verbs over adjectives
The majority of words in headlines are nouns and verbs. According to legendary advertising man, Leo Burnet, “Dull and exaggerated ad copy is due to the excess use of adjectives.” To prove it, he asked his staff to count the number of adjectives in 62 failed ads, then compare those to the number of adjectives in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and other exemplary pieces of writing.
Be wary of overusing adjectives. They often appear in headlines and viral news sites, but overdo them and you risk alienating your audience – don’t say something is surprising, if it isn’t. You’ll lose people’s trust.
The right length
It’s said Gawker doesn’t allow headlines longer than 70 characters longer headlines get cut off by Google and are less likely to be shared on Facebook.
Eight-word headlines get more clicks, apparently. News aggregator Newswhip found the mean headline length was 8.9 words. But there’s a big difference between the outlets. The BBC averages 5.4 words while the New York Times averages 7.5 words. TechCrunch, meanwhile, averages at 12.4 words and Business Insider at 10.9 words.
Speak to your audience
One feature of internet headlines is that they are now more likely to feature “you” or “your” than they were in the pre-internet era. Social feed scheduler Buffer analyzed the words that appear in the most popular headlines and found that “You” the fifth most popular word, with “your” also making the top 20. Combined, these two pronouns appeared in 16 percent of all the headlines in this study.
Academic research supports this concept. A Norwegian business school experimented with different headline structures, including referential headlines, rhetorical headlines, and declarative headlines. They found that question headlines referencing the reader were the most effective.
So what does this all mean for you?
I wouldn’t recommend you necessarily go down the route of emulating the Upworthys of this world. It really depends on the kind of business you have and what kind of overall tone of voice you’re going for.
If you’re going for a cerebral vibe, stuffing your headlines full or numbers and adjectives probably won’t help your cause. The key thing is to understand the techniques out there and pick and choose the best ones for your blog and your audience.