Writing Surprising Headlines

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Updated on: August 23rd, 2022Sharon Sexton4 min read
Writing surprising headlines

Our article for writing surprising headlines is guaranteed to help improve your click rates. How can we make this guarantee you ask? Simple; the answer is science.

Writing is and always will be a skill. However you can get better and improve by learning techniques, applying ideas and practicing your craft. Yes, being creative is hard which is why certain people are paid very well for their creative ability, but that doesn’t mean you have to produce boring, unimaginative headlines that regularly fail to capture attention! By adding this valuable tip to your arsenal your ability to write more interesting headlines will improve.

Taking Advantage of the Hippocampus

The hippocampi are the elongated ridges on the floor of each lateral ventricle of the brain. Scientists consider the hippocampus to be the center of emotion and memory.

One thing they also do, according to researchers at the Welcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London is to act as a prediction and comparison machine. When there is a discrepancy between what the brain expects and reality then it creates a surprise reaction.

In the case of writing killer headlines, that surprise is exactly what you want!

So how do you take advantage of the natural actions of everyone’s hippocampus? The simple answer is to take an expectation and twist it to register surprise which then fosters engagement. One of the easiest ways to do this is by writing headlines (or slogans) that are deviations of common proverbs.

Submitting a word in a familiar expression is a common newspaper headline technique which uses the reaction of the hippocampus to engage people. For example, “Beggars can be choosers,” is a nice play off “Beggars can’t be choosers.” When you read the unexpected version of the proverb your brain naturally says, “Hey! Wait a minute….”

Crafting Headlines from Proverbs

Ideally you want to substitute a word at the end of a proverb or common saying. The reason why is because the pattern sequence will be more fully formed so the change at or near the end creates a more obvious mismatch.

Look at these examples:

  • A picture is worth a thousand clicks
  • Actions speak louder than birds
  • Absence makes the heart grow colder
  • Don’t judge a book by its movie

The slight variation causes a pause and sparks interest. On the flipside these examples:

  • Hawaii is where the heart is
  • Bad things come to those who wait
  • Google helps those who help themselves

…are less powerful because the pattern has not been established in our brain therefore it is harder to recognize that is wrong.

Another important tip is to carefully choose the word you substitute with. Ideally you want that word to directly relate to your topic or the ad, slogan, company, etc that is being focused on because our brains will get stuck on that word more easily as it is the odd duck compared to what our brain predicted.

The Bottom Line

Writing headlines is hard. There are lots of tips and ideas out there, but you need to mix up your game regularly to ensure that you don’t become repetitive and boring. Writing surprising headlines is another tool in your bag to help ensure that no matter what the topic is you are covering, the headline is either interesting enough or surprising enough to generate a click.






Published on: October 28th, 2015
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