Need an easy way to make sure your boss never shoots down your ideas or meddles with your copy again? Look no further. Everything you need to know is right here.
OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but that got your attention, right? That's what headlines and leads in corporate publications ought to do, Ragan Communications CEO Mark Ragan told an audience in his Tuesday keynote remarks at the Corporate Communicators Conference in Chicago.
Headlines and leads ought to be examples of what Ragan called "refrigerator journalism," writing that says something so valuable so concisely that someone would be compelled to cut it out and stick it on his or her refrigerator.
His first tip to make that happen? Be proud of your work. "I have never seen a writer, in all of my professional career, who hated what they were writing, and yet it was good."
Any topic can be fascinating and engrossing, Ragan said. With the right headline and lead, you can prove it to your readers.
Writing great headlines
"The headlines of a story—I want you to think of them as speed bumps for the eye," Ragan said. "If you can't write a great headline, then all is lost."
Too often, writers and editors expend all their energy on reporting and writing the story itself, he said. Once it's time to write the headline, they're often too tired to come up with something that really makes readers stop and say, "I have to read that." But that's how you have to think, Ragan said.
"Think about it the way a marketing person would about selling something," he said. "Put your marketing and sales cap on."
The trouble is that headlines in employee publications often don't sell a story. They're boring, they don't sell the benefits of reading the story, and they're packed with jargon and acronyms (which Ragan said are "death" to headlines) and are just no fun. To illustrate his point, Ragan showed a magazine cover with a picture of an airplane and only the words, "Taking flight"; there were no other teasers.
"This is terribly wasted real estate," Ragan said.
The editors of magazines on newsstands get that. A quick look through fitness, lifestyle, and business magazines showed that they really sell their articles with assertive statements about how they can help readers, informal language, promises of lists, and words such as "easy" and "simple."
"These things have to jump off the newsstand," Ragan said. "Would it were that we had to sell our employee publications."
Your headlines need an emotional call to action, and they need to show the benefits of turning the page or clicking a link to an article. Busy people "don't have any time for relaxed reading," Ragan said. They need to know that what they're getting has value. A cover full of empty space won't give them that, so, he advised, don't let a graphic designer take charge of a cover's design. Be a "fascist dictator."
"Readership is the most important thing," Ragan said. "I am less concerned about pretty than I am about whether someone will turn the page and keep reading."
For example, when Boeing peppered the cover of its employee magazine with eye-catching headlines such as, "I took charge of my career," demand was so great that it had to print additional copies.
Email subject lines with teeth
Subject lines in email newsletters or news blasts serve much the same purpose as headlines, except you have to get your message across even faster. In an email client, the first five words are all anyone's going to see. In those five words, you have to tell people why they should care.
One way to do that, Ragan said, is to chuck generic subject lines such as "Daily alert" or "Today's news."
"Specificity is the key to all good writing," he said, so go for subject lines that give some detail, like, "10 ways to get ahead" or "More parking at our new office."
Ragan said communicators should think about Twitter when writing subject lines. Keep it brief, omit needless words, create a voice, and use strong verbs. Most of all, consider, "What am I sharing?"
Leads have to do a lot. They set the tone and mood of a story, they create tension; they give the reader a reason to keep reading. But they can't do everything. A good lead focuses on one key item, Ragan advised.
"Our brains can no longer deal with a 126-word lead."
You can reveal more detail as the story unfolds, but always be sure to give readers a concrete idea of just what the story is about—in the "nut paragraph"—by the third or fourth paragraph, he said.
There are lots of different kinds of leads—the delayed lead, which "shows a bit of leg" before revealing more of the story; the analogy lead, which compares the focus of the story to something else; the anecdotal lead, which kicks off with a story about a person—but some are a little dangerous.
Take, for example, leads that use quotes. They should be used sparingly, Ragan said. "It's very rare that I see a quote lead that is worthy of a lead."
If a quote is good enough for a lead, he said, make sure it's short and immediately followed by context.
Or consider the scenic lead, the type that paints a picture of a setting and enables communicators to "tap the inner writer" inside them. With those, it's easy to get carried away with the story and forget about the nut paragraph.
"You don't want to lose any of this great color, but you've got to get what it's about up in this third paragraph," Ragan said.
What about a lead that starts with a question? "Make sure it's really a question that's on your reader's mind," he said. "If the answer is 'no' to your hypothetical question, you've lost them."
Any of those types of leads can work, but you have to remember the building blocks of the story. "All good news writing is architecture," Ragan said. "If you do it really well, it's invisible to the reader."
Corporate communications materials often have awful quotes, because they lack what makes for a good one: an identifiable voice, a distinctive character, humor. Most of all, they need to sound like they came from a real human being.
"A quote is always the best when it matches the personality of the person saying it," Ragan said.
A good example comes from one of those magazines on the newsstand, "Cosmo Girl!" The table of contents has a picture of singer Jessica Simpson. Underneath it are these words:
"After a good makeout session, I feel pretty."
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.