Creative director and author Steve Harrison reveals the impact and importance of not just a good headline, but a headline in the first place.

At the 2016 D&AD Awards, the judges gave precious Pencils for Best Writing for Advertising and Best Press to ads with no headlines. At The One Show, the Pencil for the Craft of Writing in Print went to an ad that featured a design element masquerading as a headline. At Cannes, the judges surpassed even this and gave gongs to a Pepsico campaign that not only had no headline; there was no logo or strapline either.

While they judges may have felt all this was pretty cool, it struck me as being very dumb. For they’d handed some of the most important awards in the industry to people who’d used their craft skills to actually minimise the chances of anyone either noticing or reading the ads they’d created.

Now we all know there’s nothing that international awards judges like more than a formula they can follow (poster/press layouts, anyone?) So, to prevent the headless wonder becoming the norm, here’s why even the best copy must always have a headline.

Getting the reader to notice your copy

I was going to start with David Ogilvy who said “On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.” But I suspect that today’s arbiters of advertising excellence might think he’s a bit old hat. So maybe they’d take notice of Steve Jobs.

When launching a product, he’d spend weeks agonising over the headline that summed up its key benefit. As he said, “You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

If Steve Jobs doesn’t cut it then how about Jakob Nielsen, the doyen of the digital layout? “By far the most important thing you can do to help users consume content is to make use of meaningful headings, and make these headings visually pop as compared to body copy.”

This telegraphing via a headline isn’t a tactic used only in advertising. It’s a fundamental of storytelling. As the world’s most successful storyteller, George Lucas tells budding screenwriters: “A tagline is a one-sentence description of the idea you have. It’s a ‘hook’, a catchphrase, something that is memorable and will leave your readers wanting more.”

Getting inside your reader’s head

What Lucas says about his taglines applies to headlines. And, as he implies, the tagline/headline does more than give readers a quick way to notice an interesting story – its job is much more important than that.

Using the example of Alien’s “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream”, Lucas explains: “This tagline works as a dramatic sentence that conveys the tone and setting for the film and it paints a chilling scene from a space horror.”

In short, a tagline/headline – or any written signpost – plays a vital part in framing the story that’s about to be told. As Yellowlees Douglas says in The Reader’s Brain: ‘The titles of articles or books, their author names, and other details … cue schemas that help us to narrow considerably the range of inferences we need to make as we read.’

You have a schema – a mental picture – of almost everything. From lingerie to Lions, from politicians to Pencils. The mere mention of these words conjures up a schema specific to each, that sets you off down the road of understanding.

For, once you’ve found the appropriate schema, you can start anticipating where the story is heading. And the easier it is for you to tell where the story is heading, the more likely you are to read on.

Helping the reader to read on

Here’s an example of tihs in atcoin. Wihle teehse wrdos aeappr to be gbobydeloogk, you are albe to udnsretsnad tehm bcesaue you konw the sbucjt I’m wtirnig aobut. As Ssaus Wienschnek elpxnias in 100 Tihgns Erevy Degsnier ndees to konw abuot Ppleoe:

‘When you read you don’t absorb exact letters and words and then interpret them later. You anticipate what will come next. The more previous knowledge you have, the easier it is to anticipate and interpret.’

With context comes comprehension. But without context, we remain in the dark.

Indeed, If a copywriter creates a press ad, a web page, a brochure or an e-zine without a headline (and subheads) they are wilfully reducing their reader’s ability to understand their meaning. And that’s as dumb as refusing to turn on the electric light while you are
searching for your house keys in a dark room.

Hopefully, this year, the judges at the big award shows will look at the work they are judging through the eyes of the person it was written for. The reader.

I’m assuming they’ll have knocked off a bit of copy in their time, too. So they’ll know that writing the headline is the toughest bit. And that lionising writers who’ve ducked that task is as inexplicable as it is irresponsible.

But more than anything, I’m hoping that 2017’s big awards judges come to the conclusion that anyone who still insists on voting for a headless wonder, deost’n nkow awht teyh rae diogn.

Multi-award winning former creative director and author Steve Harrison will be running an AWARD Creative Masterclass in Sydney on March 3 and Perth on March 9. He’ll be covering how to create a good headline, as well as writing a clear brief, and better copy overall. Book your place here.

This article first appeared on Campaign Live and has been repurposed with permission.