Article Date: 6/1/2006

lessons learned
Headline Lessons
These skilled communicators must walk a very fine line.

Perhaps the most difficult job in communication lies with the headline writer for newspapers, magazines, journals, et al. I learned this many years ago when I attained the exalted position of sports editor for my high school newspaper. Headlines must:

►Describe the content of the story in a few brief words  
Gain the attention of the reader, again in a few brief words
Fit the allotted space
►Be clear so that they can't be misunderstood.

In trying to meet all of these criteria, headline writers at times run into trouble. I thought of this the other day when I read the headline, "Methodist bishops speak out against church fires." Seems obvious they wouldn't favor them!

"Mine sinks destroyer" was a famous newspaper headline during World War II, describing a destroyer running into an explosive mine. The New Yorker magazine later described the headline, with the comment following it, "What did yours do?"

Foul play

"Severed head found, foul play suspected," was a headline in another newspaper a couple of years ago. Seems a reasonable assumption. The headline writer also has to be careful not to insult anyone. A headline in our local paper read, "Elderly man injured." Turned out in the story that this "elderly" man had reached the ripe old age of 55, so the headline didn't make anyone 55 or over happy.

A master

I write a monthly column for our local newspaper, The Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune, which runs on the op-ed page. The op-ed editor is an expert at coming up with good headlines for these pieces.

"Truth often 'lens' itself to laughter for optometrists," was his headline for a column I had written on some of the humorous experiences in optometrists' offices.

"Don't put any stock in his investment tips," he headlined the column I wrote about my disastrous investment experiences.

In another column, I had written about the country rube who entered an exclusive fur salon with a peroxide blonde on his arm, and wrote a check for $10,000 to buy her the fur she selected.

"I'm sorry, but we can't accept a check of this size without calling the bank to make certain it's good," said the proprietor. "Since it's Saturday, we can't do it until Monday."

"No problem," said the hick. "Just set the coat aside and my girlfriend here can come in to pick it up on Monday morning after you've called my bank."

The following Monday afternoon, he appeared back at the fur salon. "I don't know how you have the nerve to come in here!" said the proprietor. "Your girlfriend came in this morning to pick up the fur, but when we called your bank, you don't have even five dollars in your account, let alone $10,000!"

"I know," replied the rube. "I just came in to thank you for a lovely weekend."

"Bit of humor goes a 'fur' piece in curing our woes," was the headline caption he wrote for this column.

The lesson?

You can learn a lot from headline writers about communication. Be brief, use words that are easily understood and that accurately describe the message you are trying to impart, make the message interesting, and above all, one that can't be misunderstood.


Optometric Management, Issue: June 2006