Is Your Headline Good or Bad?
Give it the Breath Test

image of boy swimming underwater

Bloggers have been asking the question “Do long or short headlines work better?” for a long time.

But the answer to the riddle of how to create a headline that pulls in readers doesn’t necessarily lie in subtracting or adding one more word. There’s not a mysterious formula or arcane copywriter’s trick.

The answer is much simpler than that.

The best way to get a headline that works is by using the breath test.

Try saying this headline aloud:

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Ran out of breath, didn’t you? And even if you didn’t quite run out of breath, you had a hard time getting through the whole thing.

You’ll also find that you struggle to recall the contents of that headline. Because if you can’t say it in one breath, you can’t hear it in one breath, either.

When your headline can’t be easily said aloud in a single breath, your message gets garbled.

Look at some of the most enduring headlines ever:

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Do You Make these Mistakes in English?

They Laughed when I Sat Down at the Piano. But when I Started
to Play …

That last one was a mouthful, wasn’t it?

No matter how you try, it’s hard to say: “They laughed when I sat down at the piano. But when I started to play … ” in one breath.

So what’s going on here? How come this headline works when it clearly fails the breath test?

It’s called punctuation.

If you have a long headline, all you have to do is punctuate to indicate that there’s a pause there. You’re ending one thought and beginning another.

How you punctuate it is totally up to you. You could use parentheses. Or an em dash. Or a comma.

The original headline used a period, making it two separate sentences. But that headline could also be punctuated like this:

They Laughed when I Sat Down at the Piano (But when I Started
to Play…)

They Laughed when I Sat Down at the Piano — But when I Started
to Play …

They Laughed when I Sat Down at the Piano, but when I Started
to Play …

Punctuation exists to give a mental pause between thoughts. When you have that pause built into your headline, a reader can read it as if it were two sentences. So even though it looks like one big sentence, it’s really two.

Next time you’ve written a great headline and you’re wondering if it’s too long, just do the breath test. If it fails, add some punctuation.

If it still fails, dump the headline and start again. You should never compromise when writing headlines.

If your reader can’t process your headline in a single breath, they can’t process it in their heads, either — which will render a perfectly good headline perfectly useless.

About the Author: Sean D’Souza offers a great free report on ‘Why Headlines Fail’ when you subscribe to his Psychotactics Newsletter. Be sure to check out his blog, too.

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Comments

  1. Just amazing how something so simple can do so much for your writing!

    The punctuation “trick” is a great idea also. It works really well for making a point in the body of your post as well. You can highlight an idea without being obvious.

    • A lot of people seem to think that headlines are incredibly difficult, but really, like you said, it’s a simple trick of punctuation.

      And you’re right: it does work well in posts. Nothing is worse though than bloggers who don’t know how to use punctuation effectively.

  2. Hey Sean,

    Thanks for explaining this. I won’t forget this…The Breath Test!

  3. Andrew Billmann :

    Here’s a great rule of thumb: More than one prepositional phrase is almost always a headline killer.

    Here’s a great way to fix it: Imagine what you would quickly tell someone as the elevator doors are closing. That’s your headline.

  4. I have no idea how you guys come up with such great posts with extraordinary example. Hats off! :) Now I can check myself if my headline needs further modification.

    Thanks, CopyBlogger. :)

  5. Interesting experiment! I can’t believe I haven’t thought about this before when choosing headlines. It does help to say and hear the headline.

    I also never thought about using punctuation in my headlines. It would be interesting to see what I come up with while playing with it.

  6. Sean,

    Great examples of powerful headlines! I’ve found most people rush through writing their headline, when, in fact, they should spend as much time on their headline (if not more) than any other part of the piece they’re writing.

    Well-known ad man David Ogilvy says “On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

    The best headlines answer the reader’s question: “What’s in it for me?” A headline can perform four different tasks:

    -get attention,
    -draw the reader into the rest of the copy
    -talk so a specific audience
    -deliver a complete message

    It’s well worth it for a writer to spend as much time as necessary to write a headline that commands the attention of his readers!

    –Emily Foshee

  7. I went back and tried this out on my last 10 headlines, I think I passed! But now I will take the test before I post the headline. Thanks for a great trick.

  8. Good article! To me it’s usually just a matter of keeping the headline short enough not to break a new line.

  9. Sean,

    Big fan of your blog, and this a great way to test out a headline for long-winded-ness.

    I try to teach my audience that you need to act like a butcher, hacking away at each tiny piece of the headline that is not ABSOLUTELY necessary to get that all-important customer’s attention.

    I like to write about 100 headlines before I pick one, and in order to get there, I try to use the fewest words possible that will yank the customer out of their trance.

    Sure you can say “How to cook pasta” in just 4 words, but you still need to grab that attention, so “New discovery: 100-year-old recipe reveals perfect pasta dish” or something like that.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  10. The “Breath Test” becomes even more critical if you are using Twitter to promote your post. It seems that if the headline passes the breath test it also will be short enough to be impactful and “retweet-able”

    …And thanks for giving me permission to use punctuation in my headlines. Can’t believe that this never occured to me!

  11. Nice rule of thumb – or mouth, cheers.

    I’m with a couple of others in that the headline takes work. Still not there on this one yet but the breath test sets a good boundary.

    • I personally don’t agree that headlines take work. I’ve seen folks turn out 10 stunners in 10 minutes. If you know what you’re doing, you can turn out hundreds of absolutely stunning headlines in a day. Headline writing is overrated. By a lot.

      • Hey Sean

        Thanks. But I don’t know if I’m awed or gutted. Was that when they were also walking on water or was that just the plain old feet on earth variety :-)

        That said, if I knew what I was doing, maybe I could walk on water too! Thanks for setting a goal.

        Cheers

  12. @Stanford,

    That is a really good point about Twitter. I think that the breath test would work really well for your tweets in general too.

  13. This really applies to blog posts too. I’m always finding myself amazed at how streamlined my editing process ends up when I read a post out loud.

    Helps to get the point across.

  14. Taking a look at the most popular posts on Copyblogger today, I see that the long ones are often punctuated with parentheses.

    Any thoughts on what type of punctation “works”.

  15. Interesting. I was just wrestling with this yesterday. My blog pokes fun at psychoanalysis and pop culture by analyzing people’s computer desktops. Even though the posts are humorous, it’s hard to get that through in the headlines. You basically already have to know the “inside joke” before you click. For example, my original title for the newest post was…

    “Charles is a manic depressive with sub par organizational skills.”

    Since I felt that was too long I ended up with…

    “Charles is suffering from manic depression.”

    I know, I know, these headlines sound completely clinical but I still felt like the 1st had a chance at being funny. Should I try to lengthen the headlines to be funny but add punctuation to the mix?

    Thanks for bearing with me. I’m a longtime reader but 1st time commenter.

  16. I’m a big fan of… the ellipsis.

  17. Hello Sean.

    This headline breath test is really great and surprisingly, so fundamental. While saying something really exciting the more we breathe the more steam the message loses. The shorter headlines often sound like declarations or exclamations and such expressions are never long. This is the reason why headlines that have been beaten to a pulp still help people sell more.

  18. lol…first time I heard of the breath test, but makes complete sense!

    I have to admit I’ve been guilty of failing the test in the past ;-) …BUT I did use dashes, so I guess it wasn’t all that bad.

    Although I guess my headline of – All You Need To Know To Start An Online Business In Under A Week With A Small Budget – will need to be changed now…lol (sorry had to throw that in ;-)

    All joking aside, your headline is so important. I’ve been experimenting with different ones and I’m starting to see a trend… very interesting stuff for sure!

    Great tips Sean, thanks for sharing!

    • @Michele: “How to” would work here.
      How to Start An Online Business Within a Week & Under Budget

      Save 6 words.

      • @Shane Thanks for the tip! I was just jesting, but I think I will actually take that on. :-) Will make for a useful post for the budget conscious entrepreneurs.

        Decisions, decisions….

  19. @TheDesktopAnalyst

    This might just be me but

    Charles is a manic depressive…with sub-par organizational skills…and an inability to cope…or take criticism…or walk on cracked sidewalks…or have…a normal relationship…

    seems funny to me… It takes the long headline to the extreme and it gives plenty of pause in between. And it builds up Charles’ character before you even get to the post.

  20. Thanks Sean!

    This is a great principle for ALL writing.

    It’s super easy to write looooong run on sentences.

    But keeping it tight.

    Tough.

    Bookmarking this post right now.

  21. If you have a Blogger blog you need to know about Blogger’s post title file character limit.

    Here’s a very interesting item I recently found:

    http://www.inyourweb.com/2009/05/blogger-post-filename-character-limit.html

  22. Sean,

    I have never heard about the breath test before. So first of all, thanks for introducing me to the concept.

    This breath test looks like a brilliant way to determine if a headline will work or not.

    As a copywriter, when you are trying to write headline for a copy, you can swipe from previously popular headlines or the famous templates like “how to….” “what you need to know about….” etc. But if you are creating your own headline, which is something most expert copywriters do, you need to know of some way to test a headline. Although there is no better way to know whether a headline would work or not without testing, the breath test sounds like the closest option that could tell if a headline will work.

    Most popular headlines, like you said, passes the breath test. But a little searching gives us some successful headlines writter by legendary copywriter Gary Halbert, which would not pass the test. Other successful copywriters have also written such headlines. But then I guess those are just exceptions, just like the ones we find in almost anything in this world.

    Thanks for the informative post, Sean.

    – Ramkarthik

  23. Love it! Thanks for providing a tool that is so simple you can’t help but remember it and use it EVERY time!! Great read that I’ll not only be using but sharing with our customers over and over again!

    THANK YOU!

  24. Sean,

    This is a great, simple test for headlines. Thanks for the tip.

    Joe

  25. Great post Sean! Using the “breath test” for headlines is great advice.

    I’ve found reading what I write out loud as I edit it also helps me catch spots that need to be smoothed out or rewritten. If I’m reading the text and the wording causes me to “stumble” as I read, I know it needs another look.

    This additional trick for evaluating headlines is a great addition to that system.

    Thanks!

  26. Thanks Shane! After five years of blogging, I still find writing titles the most painful part. I’ll see the Breath Test eases the pain.

  27. Thanks for this tip.I spend so much time after writing a post and then even more at deciding which title would suit the best.But your tip should make my work easier.
    Keep posting such good tips to make writing a simple, easier and satisfying task.

  28. Hey Shane,

    Never thought about doing a breath test for my headlines.. but it does make a lot of sense

    thanks for sharing this
    talk soon
    Hector

  29. Very true about memorable headlines. I would add that the headline that is impinging as well as incorporates SEO is a winner. I try to get the major keyword I am working with as close to the beginning of the headline as possible.

    • It always amazes me when I’m able to recall an article I read online by memory.

      For some reason that just seems like a prolific feat on the writers part, considering all the information a person absorbs in a given day.

      Nicely put.

  30. Yay! I’m FINALLY doing something right- my blog posts are full of …’s. -‘s and parentheses!

    Thank You :-)

  31. I love this – Excellent tip! Something so simple…

    I would like to add that, punctuation, is also a great thing to keep in mind for giving presentations, leaving voice mails, etc. etc. When and where you “take a breath” will drastically change the delivery and it’s effectiveness.

    Thanks, Laura

  32. Simple yet fantastic tip! I wouldn’t have thought of punctuation in the headline on my own. Thanks!

  33. I have struggled with this for some time and have generally opted to shorten the title (which is not always the best course of action).
    Thanks for the tip.

  34. This is really good, useful information – the breath test makes a lot of sense – and I didn’t know you could use punctuatuion in headlines! Headlines are hard, mine tend to be rather dull and boring, but now that I have permission to make them longer, maybe I’ll be able to do a better job. Thanks!

  35. Absolutely simple. Absolutely brilliant. Now an incredibly difficult job has become so much easier. Why have non of us thought of it before?

    Thank you so much. I have only just started my blog, but I now know it has a better chance of working.

  36. Simple, but highly effective. This will prove useful to everyone from an amateur blogger to a professional one.
    Thanks!

  37. Some really interesting points as to how to make content headlines work best. Such a simple procedure as inserting punctuation really can make all the difference. In addition, consider getting your key words or phrases in to the title to immediately grab the readers attention so they know what the article is about.

  38. My latest. How to write a story like a world champion – tips from the WWE Pt1: Building great characters Punctuation works great! Needs to be picked up and give slight description.

  39. Hi
    This is interesting will try to use it in my headings and lets see what kind of result I get :D

    Thanks For Sharing
    -Abhishek

  40. I never thought about it in quite these terms, but short sweet and to the point has always been what I try and do. I like the new approach. Also in addition to the breath test, pay attention to how it “sounds” Natural conversational flow helps alot

  41. OMG! I was guilty of long out of breathe headlines. At times, I have to ask for others opinions on my headline. The key is keeping it short, simple and direct.

  42. When you read the newspaper, pay attention to the headlines on the secondary articles as well as the big event headlines. Newspapers are the masters of headlines and have been doing it for a couple of centuries. Learn from the masters.

  43. Thanks for this. I never thought of the importance of headlines or the power of punctuation. I will remeber this rule, because run on long headlines look like a mess and make me less likely to read the article.

  44. Ha, love the breath test idea.

    Remember people, SEO Title Tags are headlines too, treat them as such!

    Gavin

  45. Excellent tips! This might help many bloggers.

  46. Thanks for this great and straight to the point post. Quite true, there’s isn’t one fast rule for choosing a headline. This breath test simply leaves the decision in the hands of the blogger – if you can’t pronounce it in one breath, they can’t.

  47. Heuuuuuuw…..,

    – Those are great tips to keep in mind! –

    Pffffff…..,

    Aaaah…..,

    Thanks.

    All the Best,
    To your Happy Inspiration,
    HP

  48. I think the Breathe Test is relevant to all writing! If you can’t say it without stumbling, your audience will have the same problems reading it.

    If I do end up with a longun I usually consider using a sub-heading. A good sub-head can help you squeeze in some more info, leaving your main headline to focus on being eye catching and intriguing.

    Great post Sean – thanks.

    Belinda

  49. This is great. I could become a fan of yours just on this advice. I have always had questions about my headlines, and you just gave me a solution.
    Actually I tend to short headlines, but now I see I can actually make longer ones, if they stand up to the one-breath test.

  50. wow!!!! what a great trick to judge headlines…you made it really simple…thanks Sean….please come up with some more such tips…will continue to read your blog…

  51. Great!!! Thank you for sharing this, Sean!!!

  52. Time to time I am having problems with creating headlines as it looks too long. Will be doing breath test for each of it from now on :)

  53. Like every other “new” idea, this one has been around for a long time. Read the copy out loud. That’s it. End of story. Reading the headline and/or copy out loud will show you where it’s clunky or unclear.

    Also, using punctuation can be dangerous if you don’t know exactly what you are doing. Use of a period or even a comma at the end of a headline signals the reader unconciously to stop. You don’t want them to do that.

    That’s my opinion, but you’re welcome to it.

  54. This is something that I’ve wondered about… how post titles land not on pages, but on the minds and “tongues” of those who read my stuff. Thank you…great tips. I’m gonna start breathing all over my posts before I send them out!

  55. Great article, I really never gave the headline much thought. Wow, that is so interesting, come to think of it, I always read the headline then decide whether to read or pass on the article. Bet most people do that too! Love the lift analogy, the only problem with that … No lift doors close slow enough for me!
    Thank you for a great nugget of information.
    Best regards Steve

  56. Brilliant post. Punctuation in a headline – who would have thought!

    When I remember I do ask my Mac to read what I have written back to me. As it doesn’t add any inflection to the words, but reads them straight, I can pick up when something doesn’t sound quite right. Reading it back myself, I emphasize the words that I know need emphasizing, but of course the reader would not know what I had in mind.

    I hadn’t thought of getting it to read the headlines though. I will next time.

    Thanks. Carol

  57. Sean:

    Interesting post and innovative way to test headlines. You’re certainly right – it’s a constant struggle to figure out if a headline is the proper length…you give an easy way to see if a headline will work or not.

    I always though punctuation in a headline was a no-no but I think with this, I’ll use some next time I need to write a longer headline.

    Could you apply this same concept to sub-headlines?