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Be less clever

Many years ago, during the time when I retrained from being an engineer to an engineering journalist, I was fortunate enough to spend a few weeks working alongside some experienced sub-editors from national newspapers. Their ability to size up a story and write a compelling headline to fit a given space was – to this day – one of the most impressive professional skills I’ve ever witnessed.

One element to this ability was to appreciate the context of the headline, which would vary depending on the location of the story in the publication. On the cover, it would need to scream: “Read me!” On the news pages, it would need to encapsulate the item succinctly. And on feature and comment pages, it would need to intrigue.

Our headlines, whether they’re the label on the top of a product page, the subject line of an email, or the teaser on a website home page, also need to take the context into consideration. Usually, a summary of the story (with the hint of a benefit to the reader of its worth to them) is what’s needed.

It’s very satisfying to come up with a clever pun or alliteration, but in the wrong place, it can actually cost us readers …and money.

As a rule of thumb in marketing, I’d say: “Be less clever”.