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Fix your headlines
According to advertising giant David Ogilvy (and many more), on average, 80% of people will read a headline – but only 20% will read the rest. Because your headline is the first thing the reader sees, try and squeeze a benefit in here. Or curiosity. Or news. At least a reason for the reader to delve into the rest of your text.
This rule applies across the board, but is often neglected on websites. ‘Our services’ just won’t cut it – why should you read about them? Do they save you time or keep your toes warmer for longer?
Make your writing easier to read
Before you click send, do a quick jargon check. You may know your industry inside-out but do your readers? Try using shorter sentences. US press associations found that sentences of around 14 words are fairly easy to read. But ploughing through 29 words or more is very difficult. Find a reasonable balance. And use smaller words in place of long ones. As author Elmore Leonard suggested, "Try to leave out the part(s) that readers tend to skip.”
Use testimonials (advises J. Caples, New York)
Testimonials add credibility quickly. Sure, they can be a pain to accrue, and some say that testimonials are overused. But would you buy anything on Amazon without reading the feedback? Or book a 5-star holiday without checking TripAdvisor ratings? Seeing testimonials on a website helps readers to take a mental shortcut that says, "I trust you more because of what others say about you.”
There are many things you can do to ensure your writing
works better for your readers. But tick these three tips off and you’ll likely make
a meaningful difference straightaway.
"Give it away, give it away, give it away, give it away now.” So sang the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their rather cheekily titled Blood Sugar Sex Magik record in 1991.* But can giving things away persuade others to feel more responsive to you and your business?
It’s a long held maxim that giving – and not necessarily receiving – makes you feel good. But the cogs underpinning human behaviour (in this case, reciprocation) are so powerful that the very act of giving compels others to return the favour.
This tendency can help your business, as long as you play by the rules.
Many scientific and academic studies have shown that reciprocation has effects far beyond the associated warm glow of giving. For example (and thanks to Prof Robert Cialdini):
When the desperately poor and famine-ravaged Ethiopia sent relief aid to Mexico in 1985 after a series of earthquakes, many were mystified why such a needy country would do so. But after a little digging, a journalist uncovered that in 1935 Mexico had sent aid to Ethiopia when it needed help. This sense of obligation was so profound, that many years later, even when it couldn’t afford it, Ethiopia felt compelled to somehow return the goodwill.
So this overpowering feeling of indebtedness can also be put to use if you (always fairly) want to take advantage of this behavioural trait.
And so on.
The golden rule with reciprocation, if you want it to work in your favour, is that whatever you offer must have some value. Whether this helps to save people money, gives them useful information or rewards them for their custom.
And there must be no strings.
*Apologies for channeling "Alan Partridge”, but sometimes on a dreary winter day we can all do with a little cheer.
When you want to promote anything you should only ever think about the reader. Because otherwise you end up in the land of "we”, which spurs a similar mind-set as the land of nod. And no matter how chuffed you feel about your latest service, product, award or business win, you can only talk about these in ways where they benefit your reader.
When you script something on your website, send an email or tweet or pop something in the post, of course you need to talk about what you do, have done or are planning. But you need to do it in the context of why this matters to an audience.
"We’re proud to have won the blah blah blah award.” Yawn. "Because we helped 11,652 clients substantially reduce their inheritance tax last year we have won xxx.” Better.
"We’ve now launched the blah blah blah.” And? "To help you save money and give you more time to spend with your family, we have launched xxx.” Better.
"We recently landed a new contract to serve blah blah blah.” So what? "Because the region needed a firm which demonstrates outstanding safety and value for money we were awarded xxx.” Better.
Most ways to fix your messaging are not complicated. And if you go to battle against the excess of "we” in your communications who do you think will win?
Your business, service or product doesn’t exist, that is, until there is an interaction with another body. Until you pop in front of someone’s eyes or under their nose you may as well be as elusive as dark matter. You are in a bubble of your own creation.Because when we work for a company we often get insulated from crucial facts. We assume people know much more about us, understand our key benefits, and decide to use us based on the perceived strength of – and goodwill towards – our brand.
Yet this perception about our impact on others is regularly skewed.
Thinking that we are more significant is not unusual. We know our brands and the successful aspects of what we do inside out (we share this experience with colleagues every day) and we tend to suffer from overconfidence. But we’re often like atoms running amok – there is not enough time or resources to assimilate every latest feature or development and convert them to important benefits for our readers.
According to quantum physics, sub-atomic particles don’t technically exist (in a quantifiable sense, at least) until measured or there is interaction with them. It’s smart thinking to consider that the same rules apply for your business, service or product.
In many cases – especially with larger firms – your audience has heard of you. But you can never presume that they fully know what sets you apart… why they should choose your latest service… how you plan to earn their trust.
Actions not clouded by words.
Try these tips to help your communications stand out more in 2017:
Say it simpler– don’t purchase when you can buy, don’t endeavour when you can try. Some may think that talking to an educated or more sophisticated audience demands fancier words. The opposite is true. The bigger the brain, the more Peter and Jane.
Cut back on ‘we’ – it’s not about you, it’s about the reader. I want to hear about what you do, but much more importantly, what can you do for me.
Be aware of how people behave – it’s all about shortcuts. When we make decisions, we prefer not to have to think too much. So if your website or literature is reinforced by proven authority, case studies, guarantees, testimonials, awards, and so on, this makes it easier for the reader to trust what you say. And make any decisions quickly.
Watch your language – words are not toxic by their strength, but by their weakness. Words deadened through overuse (innovative, engage, solutions etc) make readers snooze and neglect the important things you have to say.
Unearth your benefits – you may have to dig deep. If you have a similar quality business to other quality businesses, you don’t have to come unstuck. Shout about what you do better or differently or what others don’t talk about, but what matters.
Be inventive – but don’t bamboozle. You may work in a conservative business but your customers don’t live there. Why not use creative ideas that sparkle to set you apart?
Don’t use jargon – it bogs down readers and makes them switch off. It’s a complete no-no for grabbing the public, but you should also curb jargon when writing to others familiar with your industry. Btw, acronyms are also hell IMHO.
Use more video – start, then make them better. Using video to talk to your audience is a must but what you say – your story – is just as important as how it looks. Plan scripts and concepts so your video content is not just another talking head.
Outsource thinking – because you can’t think of everything. A few extra brain cells help you focus on the bigger picture. A skilled professional, like say, a copywriter, can burrow down to a reader’s needs to help you meet your campaign and business goals.
What is often known as the 80/20 rule has long been a go-to marketing maxim – proven through copy testing, eye tracking and the findings of such advertising giants as David Ogilvy. It states that on average, 8 out of 10 people will read a headline, but only 20% will read the rest.
So if your headline doesn’t whisk readers away from their daydreams – prompting them to gobble the rest of your advert, article, web or print copy – you’re sunk. You could have the most amazing product or service, sure-fire reasons why prospects should choose you, a compelling stockpile of what sets you apart, pain and guilt-free calls to action…
But nobody will ever know. Because your heading says ‘Our thinking’ and not something like ‘7 time-bomb investments you must sell now’. (An example, not plucked from fiction.)
More importantly, feeble headlines cost money. Time after time, week after week, without you even knowing it. You may have deployed a snappy set of ads, tricksy and cutesy, marvels of wordplay (sometimes known as creative twaddle) – but if they don’t make people read on and act, they’ll knock the stuffing out of your business. Your ad-spend at the very least.
The rule of creating headlines that work is not just for the hard sell, it’s for anyone who wants to be read. It doesn’t matter what sector, media or audience. Whether for emails, adverts, posters or web pages. Some of the best headlines are on Twitter, for example. And also, unfortunately, on the click-bait ads beneath many web articles.
But an irresistible headline is also a contract. And you must deliver on your promise.
Because creating powerful headlines demands skill, knowledge and time, there is not enough space here to conjure up a comprehensive tip-list. Yet you can avoid some mistakes by making sure you:
Don’t make your heading the name of your firm. Sounds improbable, but seeing the name of a company as the most prominent text happens surprisingly often.
Attract attention. Shout something worthwhile from the rooftops, in a way that cuts through the clutter.
Deliver a benefit. Or news, curiosity or offer useful information. Or pose a thoughtful question or make a strong statement.
Avoid wordplay for the sake of it. A common flaw is to say something like ‘Get in the driving seat’ when selling cars. But it’s easy to neglect to say why a reader should pop in for a test drive, whether you have any offers, or if you’re the only fund manager who invests in a lunar Helium-3 mining operation.
And don’t forget to... study what works. Copy winning formulas, adapt and redeploy. And study, again and again. There really are no shortcuts to the graft of testing and rewriting.
Or you can always hire someone who writes headlines for a living.