ComPRehension

Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
March 30, 2012

Five Ways to “Verbify” Your Headlines and Make Them Stronger


Join Ann Wylie for her online training session, “Writing for Social Media: How to Write Blog Postings, Tweets and Other Status Updates,” on April 24, 2012, 3–4 p.m. EDT. This public relations writing training sesssion is free to PRSA members. Register Now

“A story should be a verb, not a noun,” Byron Dobell, a former editor of Esquire, once said.

And when it comes to your headline, the verb is the story. The sexier the verb, the sexier the story.

Here are five ways to verbify your own headlines to make them stronger and more stimulating:

1. Choose dynamic verbs. If a story is a verb, then something should be happening. Your headline should capture that action.

Chris Smith, the copyediting guru at Entergy Corp., reminds us — in haiku, no less — of what happens when we neglect our verbs:

“Readers stayed away.

Did your headline have a verb? I didn’t think so.”

2. Think about action. Use athletic verbs. Model your action words after these two Wall Street Journal heads:

  • Stocks Roar Back Late in Day
  • Medicare Flip-Flop Roils Elderly

Use online tools like Visual Thesaurus to find the most muscular verb for your story.

3. Avoid couch potato verbs. Reach beyond lethargic verbs like:

  • Launches
  • Introduces
  • Thanks

And the worst headline verb ever?

  • Announces.

Think about it: If the verb is the story, and your verb is “announces,” then you’re making the announcement of the news — and not the news itself — the story.

4. Don’t drop the verb. Don’t commit verbicide. If a headline is over-edited before publication, then it could sound like this: “Investing to stay ahead of growing demand for wireless calling and data services.”

Hint: If you can find an “-ing” anywhere in your headline, then you need to write another headline.

5. Pass this test. Finally, to make sure that your verb is stimulating, ask:

  • Is the verb enticing?
  • Does it telegraph that something interesting is happening?
  • Is it the second or third word in the headline, or is it buried behind a nine-word product name or the names of each of your company’s 17 project partners?Is it in the active voice? Is it in the present or future tense?

If you can answer “yes” to each of these questions, then your verb — and the story itself — is probably strong.

Copyright © 2012 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Public Relations Tactics.

Ann Wylie, president of Wylie Communications, serves as a PRSA writing trainer and presents writing workshops throughout the country. She is the author of more than a dozen learning tools, including “Anatomy of a Press Release, Pitch and E-mailed Release” and “Writing That Sells.”

1 Comment to “Five Ways to “Verbify” Your Headlines and Make Them Stronger”