Besides being a best-selling author, Jeff Haden is an extremely popular writer at Inc.com, single-handedly driving multiple millions of views every month to his column.
Haden briefly mentioned how he went about systematically growing his column from zero in The Motivation Myth, trying different things and optimizing for what worked.
I took over a thousand of his latest headlines (written over the span of just 4 years) and pasted them into a spreadsheet with the aim of seeing if I could discover some key patterns.
A superficial scan revealed that out of 1,200 headlines:
- 593 (49.4%) used a number of some kind: e.g. items in a list, a year, a sum of money, etc. and 162 (13.5%) used the number “1,”—so even when Haden doesn’t have a list, he underlines the importance of the main point he does have
- 374 (31.2%) included the word “you”
- 225 (18.9%) used parentheses (like this) to expand the headline
- 147 (12.3%) referred to “science,” “research” or a “study”
There are also some cookie-cutter phrases that Haden relies on. Some of the most popular are:
|“few people are willing to admit”||15|
|“a brutal truth about”||13|
|“the best way to”||12|
|“from those who only dream”||11|
|“separates successful people from”||10|
|“here’s what happened when”||8|
|“a great first impression”||8|
|“if you say yes to any of these”||7|
|“but not for the reason you”||5|
But that’s just a surface level analysis. What’s really important is how Haden structures his headlines, and what elements he chooses to include, and which to exclude. While there is a lot of variety, I can see 4 qualities that seem to be present in most of the headlines:
The 4 qualities of irresistible headlines: Valuable + Specific + Authoritative + Intriguing
The formula Jeff Haden uses to write successful headlines is essentially this: 1) take a benefit, 2) make it specific, 3) make it authoritative, and 4) save the substance for the article, only hinting at it in the headline. Not all of these are always present, but the last is paramount.
Valuable: Make the value proposition clear and obvious: i.e. what’s in it for the reader? Address the reader using the word “you” to make the proposition even stronger, e.g. “Lost Your Edge? 4 Timeless Ways to Regain Mental Toughness.” Use adjectives like “simple” to make the idea even more appealing, or present it as something that “successful” people do, e.g. “Why Successful People Embrace the Jerry Seinfeld Method for Success.”
Specific: Use numbers to make a point specific, e.g. “7 Productivity Rules That…” If you don’t have a list, you can still highlight the one point that you do have, which will make it even more alluring, e.g. “The 1 Question That…” If no numbers are involved, you can quote the name of the thing you are talking about, e.g. “Jeff Bezos Uses the ‘Disagree and Commit’ Rule to…”
Authoritative: Haden draws examples from the world’s most successful people in his articles, often using their names in the headlines, e.g. “Mark Cuban Calls This the Single Best Investment He Ever Made.” He also draws heavily on research, citing “science,” “research,” and “studies” to give his headlines an instant sense of authority, e.g. “Neuroscience Reveals How Steve Jobs Made Better Decisions, Faster.”
Intriguing: This is the key to making it work: never reveal the substance in the headline—save it for the article. To make it more enticing, use adjectives like “surprising,” “unusual,” and “counterintuitive” to describe the thing you are talking about. If you think the answer might be obvious to the reader, you can use a trick and finish the headline with something like: “(But Not For the Reason You Might Think).”
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
“It Took Disney’s Bob Iger Only 1 Sentence to Give the Best Advice You’ll Hear Today.” This great headline uses every one of the techniques. Because the benefit isn’t stated, Haden presents it as “best advice you’ll hear today.” Because the advice is succinct, Haden states that “it took only 1 sentence” to give it, which also means the reader can expect to get instant value. Finally, Haden appeals to authority, Bob Iger, and, of course, doesn’t reveal his advice.
“Want to Read People Like a Pro? All You Have to Do Is Ask 1 Simple Question, Research Shows.” Every technique is used here: 1) the benefit is clearly stated (reading people), 2) the answer is made specific by narrowing it down to “1 simple question” (note the adjective “simple”—the reader can expect to actually use the advice), and 3) an appeal to authority is made by pointing out that the article is based on “research.” Again, the “simple question” is never revealed in the headline.
“Sara Blakely Says 1 Word Separates People Who Achieve Success From Those Who Only Dream.” Same story here, but this one is especially strong because Haden takes subtle aim at the reader by presenting them with the choice: are they going to be successful, or are they just dreamers? This little emotional poke makes it very difficult not to click through and find out what that “1 word” is.
Applying the formula
You can use this formula, or parts of it, to strengthen most headlines. For example, Haden has an article about how researchers found that giving people a true picture of the difficulties involved in a task did more to motivate them than only giving them encouragements. Haden then writes about how this idea can be used to motivate kids: combining challenging language with support. The article could be titled something like this:
Start Saying This to Your Kids to Make Them More Successful.
This has the intrigue, but it’s quite weak. We can make this specific by adding a number, even if it’s not a list:
Start Saying 1 Thing to Your Kids to Make Them More Successful.
Better, but we can do more by adding authority:
Start Saying 1 Thing to Your Kids, and Science Says They Will Be More Successful.
This is good. But we can do even more. For example, we can strengthen the adjectives, turning “more successful” into “much more successful.” Additionally, we can make the point more alluring by adding “(it’s counterintuitive)” in parentheses at the end—which, in this case, it really is. Here’s the full headline Jeff Haden actually used:
Start Saying 1 Thing to Your Kids More Often, and Science Says They Will Be Much More Successful (It’s Counterintuitive)
Now, it need not be said that these techniques aim aggressively at getting clicks, not growing return readers. I present them here as they are, without passing judgement. They are tools that are very effective at what they do. Whether they are used to overpromise or deceive in order to drive traffic for its own sake, or whether they are used to push great content above the sea of distraction, is up to those who use them. Use with care.