Around fifteen years ago I was sitting in an editorial meeting for a quarterly magazine I subbed. The final article had been submitted that morning and the graphic designer needed a maximum of three words to fit the space he had created for the headline. I had not read the article; it was about the impact on the environment of cheaper fuel prices. I skimmed the piece which the designer had dressed with a ubiquitous image of a motorway that resembled a car park, wrote down my headline and passed it round the table.
In any presentation of copy, the headline is what gets you over the line, it can be the difference a person actually taking the trouble to read the article or passing on to the next article. Have a look at these catchy headlines from some of UK tabloids’ best punsters.
Each one of these headlines uses the space allocated to make a hard-hitting comment that perfectly describes the news piece (although I am not convinced that some of these stories are worthy of the news tag). But one thing is for sure, to write such brilliant headlines is a skill that is developed over many years of practice. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers: The Story of Success you have to put in a minimum of 10,000 hours practice to maximise your talent. The late and great George Best would stay behind after training to practice hitting a football against a crossbar from 30 metres; the iconic Australian batsman Sir Donald Bradman would hone his hand-eye coordination by hitting a golf ball against a wall…with a golf club and Stanley Matthews would duck and dive among the heaving summer crowds strolling on the Blackpool promenade to sharpen his body swerves.
And so it is with headline writing. I must have written well over five thousand in the years I have been earning a living writing copy. I remember the ones that made Sunday People sports editors smile, Sunderland striker Niall Quinn missing a penalty (Death on the Niall) and Stuart Houston suffering a 4-0 home defeat while manager of Queens Park Rangers (Houston, we have a problem). But there were many that simply did not work because they compromised the space allocated, or, to paraphrase comments from various sports editors I worked under: “What do you think this place is Rivlin, the f**king Observer?” Perish the thought.
But if the space does allow the creative juices to flow, you can see real genius at work, as was the case with this classic fifteen-word headline from the News of the World in 1970.
You may be wondering what the headline of this blog has to do with its content. It was actually the headline I came up with on that slip of paper fifteen years ago.