That headline may sound like something Confucius concocted, but if you want to get someone's attention in writing, it's a smart place to start. No, this isn't fortune cookie advice, it's real-world business wisdom.
"On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy," said advertising legend David Ogilvy. "When you have written your headline, you have spent 80 cents out of your dollar."
The fact is headlines get into readers' heads. They capture attention because eyes instinctively are drawn to them.
Labels are a lot like bullet points. Eyes just want to glaze over them and look for something, well, more eye-catching.
Labels Are Lazy, Headlines Work Hard
Labels require much less thought than headlines, not only to come up with, but also to analyze. That's why headlines can communicate a powerful message and labels can't. Connecting with your audience requires a much smarter strategy than "just stick a label on it."
So, let's peel apart labels and see where they fall short.
If the words don't read like a sentence, it's most likely a label. However, labels do have a place. They're terrific for charts, tabs, and soup cans. They're terrible for articles, slides, and critical messages.
A strong headline makes a powerful point. A persuasive headline leads, intrigues, and seduces the reader by being clear, catchy, compelling, and sometimes creative or clever.
Labels are not only short, they also stop short of making a powerful point.
A Quarter for Your Thoughts
A slide from Google's financial report was titled Fourth Quarter 2012 Highlights.
That label may identify the topic, but it triggers no emotional connection to what follows. As a result, it has the same kind of effect as a telephone pole. It's there, and it's big, but chances are you're never going to really notice (unless you hit it with your car).
But look how the message changes when that Google slide reads: Strong Revenue Growth and Cash Flow Highlight Q4
Suddenly, the eye glaze reflex resists moving on and instead transmits a messages to the brain that says, "Google is going gangbusters." The message is sent and the point is made even before you analyze the numbers.
When Trying to Make Headlines, Labels Don't Stick
Go through your last presentation deck and identify a label where a headline would have made a more powerful point.
Now ask yourself, "What am I trying to tell my audience?" Write it down, even if it's a few sentences. Next, distill the one most important message you're trying to convey into one sentence. Keep massaging it until it's catchy and more memorable. When you say, "Wow, that's what I really meant to say," replace the label with your new headline.
Research shows that a compelling sentence-structured headline in the main body of a slide, supported by evidence such as a visual, increases comprehension and recall. For proof of that, check out the Assertion-Evidence Structure from Michael Alley, professor of Engineering at Penn State and author of The Craft of Scientific Presentations.
Headlines Sell, Labels Don't
The New York Post's most famous headline is "Headless Body in Topless Bar." That sells newspapers.
In the online world, a super headline can easily go viral, but a label stands little chance of achieving liftoff. And headlines make for more powerful points than labels on PowerPoint slides. That's why when people hear or read something that catches their attention, they say, "Great line!" instead of "Great label!"