Even though they make up a small percent of your overall copy, headlines and subheads are the most important real estate on the page. Get them right and you’ve won 75% of the writing game.
That’s because most readers merely scan the big copy first before deciding if they want to read on or skip the communication. If the few pieces of big copy don’t draw readers in, then there’s no chance they’ll read the little copy. You only get about one second to grab a reader’s attention and draw him in before he tosses the communication aside.
BLOT it! That means put your Bottom Line On Top.
If your readers only remember (or notice) one thing as a result of your communication, what should it be? That one point should be the first thing they read. It should be the largest copy on the document.
The largest copy is your headline. In an email, that’s your subject line. Give them the bottom line right in this top line.
For example, don’t start your customer letter off with, “Important Information about your account.” It’s not meaningful and does nothing to lure the reader in. Everything says “Important” these days. Your reader might roll his eyes, assume it’s another privacy disclosure, and toss it in the recycle bin — unopened.
Instead, tell him what’s so important. “Your payment is past due.”
“We’ve changed our payment terms.” Or “Here’s your new appointment date.”
Answer the reader’s question, “What’s In It For Me?”
This is especially important for sales and marketing pieces. We call them “WIIFM” statements. To craft a good WIIFM statement, you need to understand what motivates your audience. Remember, he’s asking, “What’s in it for ME?” not “What’s in it for YOU?”
Let’s say your client’s company is launching a new drill and they hire you to craft an ad. Your reader probably didn’t wake up this morning thinking, “I don’t have a drill. I think I’ll go buy one.” No, his wife has been nagging him to fix something and he needs a drill to do so. He doesn’t want to spend his weekend on this project. His friends are coming over and he wants to get ready for the big game.
He opens the paper and sees your headline about a fantastic new drill that comes in five amazing speeds and eight gorgeous colors. Then he turns the page and sees a competitor’s headline that says, “Precision Drills — Finish the job in half the time.” Bingo! Guess which drill he’s going to buy. HIS bottom line must be YOUR top line.
Summarize each new thought into subheads.
Remember, readers will skim the document. That means they’re reading the headers and subheads, but not necessarily the copy under it. Every time you add a new thought or concept, insert a new subhead to summarize what’s under it. Don’t worry if you have too many. Each new concept deserves a subhead.
I draft the document first before I attempt to write headlines and subheads. The process of drafting the subheads (or mini summaries) helps me to edit the overall document. I can now see how to improve the flow of content, and where I’ve inserted too much information or gone off on an unnecessary tangent.
Construct your subheads like this:
- Use as few words as possible.
- Put the most important (key) words as close to the front as possible.
- Make them read like complete sentences.
- Begin with a verb if you want the reader to perform an action.
Here’s a quick trick that I discovered after years of editing what other people wrote. The first sentence of the paragraph often makes a great subhead. Writers tend to say what they’re about to say anyway. Just pull it out, edit as needed and bold it. Do NOT repeat it in the body copy.
Make subheads flow like a complete story.
Your subheads need to serve two purposes:
- They should summarize the bottom line of that particular paragraph.
- They must work together to summarize the document as a whole.
If you delete all the “details” and leave only your subheads, they should flow as one continuous story or list of bullet points because that’s how most people will read them.