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Five Things I Learned About Writing Headlines from Twitter

I’ve been a PR guy for almost 20 years now. When I started writing headlines and press releases for my startup, eReleases, in 1998, there was no such thing as MySpace, Facebook, and there was certainly no Twitter. Email, on the other hand, was getting hot; I should know, I had a pretty sweet AOL package.

As I get older, wiser, and wider, however, I’m finding that these networks are reshaping my cozy newsprint world in some unpredictable and surprising ways. The most notable way that one social network in particular, Twitter, has been changing my work landscape is a renewed focus on headlines.

 

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Twitter is perfect for headlines. It’s practically built for it.

Sure, there are a number of other ways social media’s been impacting journalism and PR. The fall of AP Style stringency on content that crosses the newswire, for one.  PRNewswire, the oldest and largest wire in the world, no longer requires that folks put headlines in AP title case.  Why?

Because it translates better over Twitter, for one. Simply put, they found out that releases get more social shares without all that … correctness.  

In an environment where 80% of people don’t read past the headline before sharing it (remember NPR’s April Fool’s prank?), that 140 character space needs to be pretty competitive. But even 140 characters is long for a headline. The best of them top out at 80 characters (which leaves #justenoughspace for other things, @amiright).

So for your edification and my self-indulgence, here’s my personal list of what Twitter has taught me about writing headlines:

1.) Keep it short and factual

We have already said that headlines should range from 60-80 characters. The shorter it is, the more digestible it will be for your audience. Think of how many messages are blaring at you when you do your Twitter scroll. If something’s short and snappy, it grabs your attention.

Also, keep things factual and objective. Sensationalistic headlines, while intriguing, will not help your credit as a writer. Lastly, if you have noteworthy data, put it in the headline!

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2.) Keep your headline interesting

Just because your headline is short, objective, and factual doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Journalists, like your followers, are people, too. They don’t want to read, let alone share a snooze of a headline.

The biggest clue that your story and headline might be boring?  You’re writing a release/tweet simply for the sake of writing a release/tweet.

3.) Lists and numbers bring ‘em in

This should have been first on the list -- it was that big of a revelation for me.  I’m not sure what it is, but there’s something that makes people want to click number-containing headlines until their mouse files an abuse report with HR.

Think of BuzzFeed or UpWorthy.  Their headlines are scientifically engineered to be clicked and shared. ‘23 Biggest...’ ‘10 Reasons...’  Thanks to the success of sites like those, I’ve been telling this to my press release clients to include numbers in their headlines for the past few years.

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    4.) Don’t make a sales pitch

One of the worst things you can do in PR is dress an advertisement up like it’s a piece of news.  This is boring, annoying, and never popular.  It drives readers crazy.  I see examples of this all the time on Twitter -- and you know what, it doesn’t work any better there, either.  If your headline is ‘Buy Me!’ then you’re going to have one lonely, lonely story.

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    5.) Avoid jargon like the devil

This is only going to alienate people.  The more in touch with the common man your headline is, the more pick-up it’s going to get.  It doesn’t matter if you’re in a very niche industry or deal in obscure computer components.  People have to understand what the heck you’re talking about before they click, read, or share your news.


Where do you draw inspiration for your Tweets and news releases from?  Let me know in the comments!

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