Sex, Lies, and the Art of Commanding Attention

image of pretty womanIt’s Killer Headlines week at Copyblogger! Our guest editor Jon Morrow will be delivering up great content for you all week on how to write headlines that get results.

Today, how to choose the power words that make headlines work harder.

Okay, show of hands.

Who wonders if their writing might be just a teensy bit boring?

No, you’re not as boring as your high school math teacher (let’s face it, that lady could put an amphetamine addict to sleep.) But you do go off on tangents on occasion, and you have a tendency to get so wrapped up in giving people valuable information that you forget to make it fun.

And so you get ignored.

Not because your content sucks, not because you stink at SEO, not because the universe hates you and gleefully ruins everything you do.

But because we live in an ADD world, and if you don’t grab people, they pass you by, bebopping onto the next shiny, noisy spectacle and forgetting about you forever.

It’s a shame, really. The world shouldn’t be this way.

But it is.

So, smart writers adapt. Smart writers learn how to command attention. Smart writers create spectacles of their own, hypnotizing readers with words so interesting they can’t click away.

Let’s talk about how.

Not all words are created equal

There’s this great scene in the movie Analyze This where the FBI asks Billy Crystal’s character, who is a psychotherapist treating a mob boss, if his patient has mentioned anything about an upcoming bloodbath.

He tells them no, and when they ask if he’s sure, he says,

“Yes, I’m sure. A word like ‘bloodbath’ really stands out in a conversation.”

And it’s true. It does stand out.

In fact, if you think about it, there are a lot of words that pop out at us and grab our attention. “Sex” is one of them. “Lies” is another. The word “taxes” may very well send your blood pressure sky high.

Why?

To use a term from neurolinguistic programming, some words have strong emotional “anchors.” We associate them with a certain emotion, and anytime we hear those words, we feel that emotion again. It’s essentially the same effect as Pavlov’s dogs salivating when they heard the bell.

Like it or not, each of us are programmed the same way. If you hear the word “sex,” you probably can’t help feeling a spark of lust (especially if you’re a teenager). And if you hear the word “lies,” you probably experience just a touch of anger.

Either way, these types of words are hard to ignore, and so the smart approach — “smart” is another power word, by the way — is to deliberately use them in your writing.

And the best place to put them is in your headlines.

You only have half a second to grab their attention

You’ve probably heard you only have seven seconds to grab the reader’s attention.

That might have been true once upon a time, but it’s not anymore.

According to my own informal research, it’s closer to half a second. The majority of readers decide whether or not your content is worth reading based purely on the headline.

And it’s not even a conscious decision.

They don’t read the headline two or three times, considering the content and deciding whether or not it’s relevant to them. They scan it, subconsciously glossing over the words and making a gut-level reaction.

So, if you want them to read your content, you have to punch them in the gut.

Because of the half-second rule, you don’t have time to educate them, get them to think, or even help them create a new connection.

All you have time to do is trigger an anchor that’s already in place.

Here’s how:

Stuff your headlines with power words

I don’t know if you noticed, but the headline for this post has four power words in it.

Sex, lies, commanding, and attention are all words with strong emotional anchors.

The same goes for many other popular posts here at Copyblogger. For instance, take a look at these headlines, where I’ve marked power words with an asterisk (*):

See what I’m talking about?

Now, take a look at those same headlines with the power words stripped out

  • 11 Tips for Better Writing
  • Don’t Do This with Your Online Marketing
  • My Life Story, and Why I Care so Much about Writing
  • Why a Woman Changed Her Name to Make Everyone Think She Was a Man
  • Five Grammar Tips Everyone Needs to Learn
  • 5 Beliefs That Make It Harder to Write

Nowhere near as compelling right?

In fact, I would even predict these posts wouldn’t have become popular without the power words that drive them. Or at least not nearly as popular.

The same is true for your headlines.

Go back and read the last few headlines you published, and ask yourself if they seem a little lackluster. If they do, try stuffing them with a few power words and see what happens.

My prediction:

You’ll be stunned at the difference.

The ultimate formula for writing great headlines

Of course, power words aren’t everything.

If you really want a great headline, you need to combine them with a strong structure (like one of the proven headline models I gave you in Headline Hacks), as well as write about a topic that keeps your audience awake at night.

The equation goes something like this:

Proven Headline Structure + Important Topic + Power Words = Great Headline

For instance, the headline for this post uses “The Art of [Blank]” template. For the topic, I chose commanding attention, a topic many a marketer tosses and turns over. For the power words, I began with “The Art of Commanding Attention” and then expanded the headline slightly to “Sex, Lies, and the Art of Commanding Attention.”

Is it a great headline?

Well, it depends on your standards. I’ve written better, but it’s pretty good. Better than most.

And most of the time, that’s good enough. Using the above formula, you can write a good headline maybe in minutes, certainly in less than an hour.

If you’re busy (and who isn’t?), that’s important. You probably don’t have time to invent everything yourself, and so you need a system to make sure you’re hitting the key elements.

This is that system.

So give it a shot.

Write some great headlines.

Get yourself some traffic.

And if you need some more help, don’t forget about the free live headline clinic today at 4 PM Eastern, 1 PM Pacific. Sonia Simone and I will be there to help you create a killer headline for a blog post, sales letter, or special report, and we’d love to help you out. If you haven’t registered yet, you can still sign up here.

Look forward to seeing you later today!

About the Author: In addition to serving as Associate Editor of Copyblogger, Jon Morrow is on a mission to help good writers get traffic they deserve. If you’re one of them, check out his upcoming blog about (surprise!) blogging.

About the Author: Jon Morrow is CEO of Boost Blog Traffic. If you'd like to learn more about what it really takes to get more readers, build your email list, and become an authority in your niche, subscribe today.

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Comments

  1. Yeah, sure, you really caught my attention with the word ‘SEX’. If this was not Copyblogger, i would taken the meaning literally.

    Am a green blogger and still learning how to craft attention grabbing headlines,

    • Wow, Jon, you sure have a lot of sex on your mind ;-) Yesterday was about sleeping with your readers, now this.

      Taking your suggestion, I went back and checked out the headlines to my recent posts. And they do seem a little lackluster. So, I did a little tweaking and came up with the following:

      BEFORE: Do You Know These 12 Ways to Get Your App Noticed?
      AFTER: How to Get Your App Noticed Without “Accidentally” Leaking a Sex Tape

      BEFORE: 2 Mobile App Success Stories to Inspire You to Action
      AFTER: The $84,000 Reason to Get Your A$$ off the Couch

      BEFORE: Make More Money Using These 7 App Development Strategies
      AFTER: 7 Powerful Strategies That Will Catapult Your App into the Money-Making Stratosphere

      What do you think? Better? Or back to the drawing board?

  2. Why do you capitalize your headlines? Is that what you learn in American school?

    In Europe, headlines where every word starts with a capital letter comes off as rather unfriendly and spammy. It’s like the words are trying to higher their status. But everyone knows it’s not working. It just looks spammy. They’re also not as legible as their non-captalized counterparts.

    For me, walking in on websites where texts and headlines are capitalized always raises a red flag.

    • You mean like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and countless other mainstream publications? Maybe it is an American thing, but it’s fairly prevalent to capitalize the initial letter of words in headlines.

      • I’ve also read that capitalizing makes it easier for the eye to comprehend the word than if it’s all lower case or all upper case. That’s one of the reasons you’ll see a lot of Google Adwords ads capitalize each word. Not sure if there’s hard research to back it up, but I’ve seen the concept thrown around.

    • Reimund, that is something that’s learned in American school. Capitalizing “important words” is recommended by both Chicago and AP style, which is what a lot of American publications use. Not all, but many.

      Though it is very interesting to note that this style as seen as spammy in Europe.

      • So by capitalizing almost all words in a headline that’s supposed to make the entire headline important?

        Not trying to offend Americans here, but it’s kind of silly, don’t you think?

        • I had never noticed that UK newspapers don’t capitalize the words in their headlines (other than articles & prepositions), interesting. Because I was curious, I took a look through the top 10 British blogs — some do, some don’t.

          I have to smile thinking about the reaction I would get if I went to a German blog and called Germans “silly” for capitalizing their nouns. I suppose they’d think I was a stereotypical American who didn’t know anything about other cultures.

      • I agree Mandy, although I’d like to hear specifically where Reimund is from to clarify this point.

        Funny how that works, because without the capitalization, it doesn’t look like a real headline to me (it looks “sloppy”, if that makes any sense).

        • Interesting that it looks sloppy. But I guess that’s quite normal if that’s not what you’ve been thought.

          I’m from Sweden but you capitalize headlines just like normal sentences in all of Scandinavia, as well as the UK, Germany and I’m guessing the rest of Europe. Actually, Germany is a bit different since you capitalize the initial letters of all nouns.

          • I feel like it’s a balance thing.

            I listed 3 of my headlines in a comment below, and while they looked fine to me capitalized on their own… now that I put them next to each other, all the capitals really did start to feel a bit ‘spammy.’

            I see it kind of like cooking a recipe, there is no ‘right’ way, and a little bit of capitalized headlines is great, but I can see how it could easily get out of balance or overdone.

        • Here’s a thought — test it. What we’re really talking about is conversion (whatever conversion is for the particular headline — a read, a share, an opt-in, etc.).

          I don’t give a smurf about a style or “feeling.” Just the result.

  3. This is a great article and it definitely sparked some ideas for me. I’m going to implement them on every blog I post.

  4. This was a very informative post!

  5. I have to give it to you Jon, you really know your stuff. I’ve never seen anyone break down the art of headline writing like you do.

    Also enjoyed your stuff on guest blogging – it hit the mark. Maybe if I write enough blow-’em out of the park headlines I’ll be able to afford to take your course. Otherwise? “Screw Up This One Critical Point and You Could Be Penniless Forever.” (that one is spur of the moment).

  6. I was feeling discouraged by the lack of comments on my latest post, and then I read this article. Well, no wonder, I’d written the most boring title ever (and I’m no exaggerating). I just changed the headline using your guidelines and I’m willing to bet it will help.

  7. Fantastic post, Jon – just when I thought copyblogger couldn’t dig any deeper into headlines ;)

    I’d like to add that, at least for me, to use power words well, they need to be authentic. For example, I ADORE engaging people on topics most people are scared of:

    I love talking about sex, money, fame, health, religion, god, death, birth, confidence, success, failure, etc. — because of my love for these topics, these power words crop up naturally and often in my writing and headlines.

    The titles of my 3 latest guest posts:
    1. 8 Failed Businesses In 6 Years (FirePoleMarketing.com)
    2. For The Love Of God, Be Sexy (InspireHisDesire.com – the blog owner REMOVED the word God)
    3. What Horrible Things You`ve Been Taught That Stop Success (Not live yet on Soulati.com)

    There was little to no conscious thought put into these headlines, I just love talking this way.

    Anyway, thanks for such an eye-opener, what you teach is awesome, and for me, part 2 of learning it, is habituating it :)

  8. Question regarding the headline capitalization issue. Power words notwithstanding, do you think that following the capitalization convention, when writing in a given country, is more or less likely to draw the reader’s attention?

    • You can’t know without testing (see Tony’s comment above), but my gut sense is that 99% of readers do not notice and that it’s not a factor for them either way.

      • Yeah, it’s probably not a big deal. I can’t remember where, but somewhere I saw a popular blog that doesn’t capitalize their headlines at all. It’s all lowercase letters.

        That’s worth testing too.

        • With my journalism training, no capitalization whatsoever looks amateur and stupid — and potentially spammy. Everything is relative to what we’ve learned.

          I think all capitalized headlines stem from the more formal, older style of journalism, which started to shift to a more casual, less formal style maybe 20-30 years ago. As Brian points out, the NYTimes and other major mainstream publications have retained the formal style.

          For me, when I want I more casual and conversational feel I don’t use all caps. When I do, I do.

          A power word is a power word, capitalized or not. The point is to include them. Often.

  9. You didn’t really mention the importance of verbs, Jonathan. I thought the best headline in the piece was:
    Stuff your headlines with power words

    This is because “stuff” (v) is such a fabulous, action-packed word. You’ve also used it in the imperative which gives it even more power. And, of course, the word “power” is also powerful. :-)

    • Verbs are important for subheadlines, but in headlines, it’s more about emotional oomph.

      Yep, “power” is a power word, but I would choose “stuff” as one. It doesn’t really have any deep emotional anchors.

  10. Broke Ass, Jobless, Ritzy Private College Student Calls Out Self-Employed, Lavishly Living High School Drop Out On His “Caps Loaded Headlines”

    I have a brother who recently graduated from a cushy private school. He got his degree in business management. Of course, nothing spoke of here or on my site was ever covered in his classes.

    So one day he see’s one of my headlines for a salesletter I’ve written that’s more likely than not, paid for the cigars, food, and drinks I’ve bought for him that day and have been buying for him over the years, and he makes a snide remark about there “being a lot of caps in my headline”. That’s when I had to break it down to him how it goes down in the real world of getting money with the written word.

    I don’t know if it’s already been pointed out or not in the comments but what I feel this strategy does is it unconsciously connects to the style people see in professional print – New York Times, USA Today, etc. and leads to your writing taking on this professional feel and familiarity. And this subtle nuance, factored with compelling choice selected words, allows your perfect prospect to succumb to your beckoning.

    The caps are like mascara on top of the words that serve as your bedroom eyes.

    But it was very interesting to see that this “Caps In Headlines” thing isn’t just foreign to foreigners, even though, as Brian pointed out above, it’s everywhere you look in print media here in America. I’m wondering if this technique lands differently, in a less than desirable way, on this younger generation of purely online readers?

    Bu like Sonia said, only testing will ever prove if it’s a valid choice to ditch this technique that feels so right.

    PS. I use twitter much like a “Pin Interest” or “Stumble Upon” more so than a texting tool. Like, “The Lede” I curate what I deem to be awesomeness and share it there. Yeah, I’ll probably roast in Twitter hell in the after life for doing so, but I like living dangerously and that my nerd version of doing so.

    Jon, your power words strategy has been helping me write my tweets today because while the headlines of some of the content I share, like yours, is rip-roaring and ready-to-go right out of the gate, some of the other stuff isn’t and can use some sexify-ing.

    Thank you for the help! And best wishes to you and Sonia on your call later today. I’m sure everyone will be creaming their mental jeans over the way your tag-teaming, action-packed content makes sweet, sweet love to their ear holes. :)

  11. Another awesome blog post, I am really enjoying reading these blogs AND learning from your “Internet Marketing For Smart People”. Really great content.

    Thanks for Posting.

  12. I’ve had personal success with making better headlines, however, whenever I read about how absolutely important a sexy headline is, I think to the huge examples of vague headlines I see in many of the top blogs in the world.

    Some examples from Ad Age’s list of top marketing blogs (http://adage.com/power150/):

    - Ads of the World: “Sinomarin: Mermaid”
    - ShoeMoney: “I Love The Lisa”
    - Seth’s Blog: “Insulate yourself…”
    - Social Media Examiner: “3 Tools to Store and Search Your Social Media Activity” (clear but boring)
    - PSFK: “Dutch Retailer Selects Androgynous Male Model To Demonstrate The Success Of Their Push-up Bra [Pics]”
    - Chris Brogan: “Interest Payments”
    - Brian Solis: “The Blame Game: A Nation Stripped of Humanity”
    - I believe in adv: “Heineken: The sunrise”
    - Search Engine Land: “Google Webmaster Tools Author Stats”

    How come, out of the top 10 blogs (in MARKETING, for goodness sakes) only Copyblogger writes consistently interesting and clear headlines?

    A “poor” headline isn’t the exception, the Black Swan case that we shouldn’t be fooled by. it seems like the rule.

    What am I missing here?

    • You’ve got quite a mix there — I think the PSFK one is good. :)

      The Social Media Examiner headlines are consistently very clear — they’re highly targeted to what their readers want to know about. Not emotional powerhouses, but they’re useful, and that gets the job done. The Search Engine Land headline is also very clear — the reader knows exactly what’s going to be in there.

      Ads of the World & I believe in adv are quite different from a persuasive blog that supports a business — they simply showcase different ads. Their goals are different from the kind of content we talk about on Copyblogger.

      Godin, Brogan, and Solis have worked very hard to create readerships (print & online) that tune in day in and day out to hear what they have to say. Most of us are working to do the same — but we don’t need to handicap ourselves with those headlines. :) For every Chris Brogan who makes it work, there are a thousand strong voices who don’t. It took Chris a tremendously long time to find the audience he has today — I believe he could have done it more quickly with content that was wrapped up with headlines that were more shareable.

    • The same is true, by the way, for benefits in copy, for well-crafted calls to action, for conversion elements on order pages, for proven best practices in direct mail.

      Most people (and plenty of big companies with huge budgets) don’t take advantage of all the tools that are out there to get the word out as effectively as possible. I don’t know why that is true, but it is.

      So if you do make the best use of those tools, you give yourself an amazing advantage.

  13. “So, if you want them to read your content, you have to punch them in the gut.” Your content hits me like that.

    Metaphorically, I think I’m still stuck striving in my writing for a bouquet of flowers. As in, “Ooh, look at these pretty bunch of insights…”

  14. Hi everyone,

    I’m looking to hire a phenomenally talented and extremely reliable writer for a new blog for one of the best business books of 2011. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

  15. I think one of the reasons I instinctively shy away from those really awesome power words you talk about is my little shoulder elf that quietly whispers, “That’s too much. It’s too strong. You’ve gone too far….”

    You Jon, are teaching me that it is NOT too much. In fact, it’s probably still not even close. I keep reminding myself that my headline can’t just sidle up to the reader and casually offer to buy them a drink. It has to stride right up, grab their hand and take them home.

    Love your work and am finding the whole capitalisation conversation very interesting.

  16. You make writing headlines sound like it’s an art.

    Well, I guess it is.

    Another awesome post with an awesome headline, Jon. More evil genius stuff.

  17. One of your best posts. Can’t wait to revisit my old headlines and make them snap!

  18. Hi Jon, Great Post, that was so enlightening to me. I have never really known too much about the impact and salesman ship of a Good Headline.
    It is so true, I have deleted so many Coppyblogger posts to my email without even opening them but this one something inspired me to open and read it, so there you go, that is the evidence right there, well it worked on me anyways.
    This has changed my whole way of thinking, I will revisit all my websites and “Power up those Headlines”
    Do you believe we should Capitalise every letter or just the main words?
    I don’t believe you would capitalise the “and, but, if, so etc” What do you think?
    Is it important to use Capitals in marketing emails? Just in address or throughout spiel?
    Here’s a question out of left field for all you Marketing Guru’s out there.
    How would you address a Cold Call Sales letter? (If not “To Whom it May Concern”)
    How does ” Attention Sales & Marketing Dept.” sound?
    Keep up the Great Articles, I will be Staying Tuned in!
    Best Regards Steve

  19. Hi Jon,
    It’s the end of the year and I wanted to introduce myself. I’m a Super hand model (but please don’t judge a girl from the wrist down) – I began blogging in Jan, determined to contribute more to society than long nail beds. What a difference a year makes! I’m happy to report I’ve come out of the creative closet and met some wonderful people along the way…. Speaking of, not long ago a friend introduced me to your site, and after reading a couple of posts, I immediately signed up for updates. I’ve learned so much from you about building a quality blog. So thank you, bless you and Happy Holidays! Adele

  20. Thanks Jonathan for your informative post! Headlines are one of the major things that I struggle with. If you don’t have a good headline, readers do not even pay attention to your post. Then, your post almost has no impact. I like the breakdown of the headline that you structured out into a formula “Proven Headline Structure + Important Topic + Power Words = Great Headline”. This provides a simple “equation” to remember for writing viral pieces as well and not just regular blog posts.

  21. I get it, i get. The samples are great. Loving the system. Noted, pinned and saved for future use. Thanks for the tips. You’re right, nobody has time anymore to think of great headlines, atleast having your own system lessens the ordeal.

  22. Great article Jonathan. Very well write, an awesome post.

  23. Headlines and guest posts, the true key to succsex (Okay, sorry, terrible joke).

    My question is if a headline makes someone feel excited or happy versus sad or angry (like using the word ‘lies’), are they more likely to go with the positive feeling? -Would that then mean that we should focus our headlines on inducing positive feelings in the reader?

    How to stop your boyfriend from cheating on you vs. How to make your boyfriend love only you
    How to lose that stubborn belly fat vs. How to become skinny and beautiful
    How to lose dumb phrases vs. How to use smart phrases
    Busy People Get Healthy vs. Smart People Get Healthy

    that last one is my upcoming free report, but maybe I want to remind people that they are smart rather than reminding them how busy they are?

    I guess it’s less postive/negative and more whichever creates a stronger emotional charge.

    Thanks for the thought provoking writing that continues to draw hearts and minds years after it was conceived.

    -Alexis

  24. I really enjoyed your webinar the other evening Jon. Thanks. I’ve got this ‘what I think is an’ irresistible offer. What do you think?

    Yours Free: Cheat Sheet: “How to Get Paid £25 – £139 for a Test-Drive of Your Product or Service in 60 Seconds – Guaranteed – or I’ll buy you Lunch at The Ritz!”