The perfect headline, subject line or title – whatever you call it, 99.9 percent of everything you write is going to need this vital combination of words that will either get the rest of your words read or allow them to forever float around unnoticed. In today’s fast-paced world, you have mere seconds to capture the interest of your audience and that is best done with your headline.

As you read on today, you are no doubt going to read some information you have heard before. After all, you don’t throw away advice that has stood the test of time, nearly a half century of time to be exact, just because it is familiar. I can guarantee, however, that if you allow that bit of familiar information to cause you to stop reading, you will miss out on some information you will find new and exciting.

Part 1: Understanding the Why


The entire purpose of a headline is to motivate people to read what is contained within the words that follow. That is the sole purpose. There are those that would argue that you are attempting to motivate an individual to make a purchase, visit your website or take some other action. This is the purpose of the words that follow the title. Your title has one purpose and only one purpose and it is the same purpose for every title written by anyone – to motivate someone to keep reading. In order to achieve that goal, you have to understand what motivates people in general.

A large majority of our decision-making process is done at a subconscious level. We won’t go into the scientific process here but you can check it out if you are interested in the scientific aspect. This is necessary because we make hundreds of decisions daily and it would be overwhelming if we consciously made each of these. Yes, the conscious mind does get involved, but only after the subconscious has narrowed things down and decided conscious effort is necessary. The first thing the subconscious does is determine if, by performing a certain act, one of our basic motivators has been piqued.

What Are the Basic Human Motivators?

Studies have shown that humans make their decisions based on one of sixteen basic motivations . Of these, fourteen are related to survival and are often reached on the subconscious level. The other two are conscious. What this means is that in order to get a person to act on something, such as reading beyond your title, you need to speak to one of these motivations. They are:

  • Power
  • Independence
  • Curiosity
  • Acceptance (Conscious)
  • Order
  • Saving
  • Honor
  • Idealism (Conscious)
  • Social Contact
  • Family
  • Status
  • Vengeance
  • Romance
  • Eating
  • Tranquility
  • Exercise

These motivators vary in strength from one person to the next but are present in all individuals to some extent. Depending on the audience you are addressing, you want to speak to one of these basic needs. Once you have figured out what your audience is likely to want the most, speaking to that need helps determine the approach you use to designing your headline.

Part 2: Understanding the How

Now that you understand the way people make their decision on whether or not something is worth their time to read, let’s take a look at how you can reach them at that emotional level that makes them want to keep reading.

The How-To Title

Here we have the longest-lasting and most effective of all title types. Knowledge is power, so when you promise the reader you will be giving them the knowledge on how to do something, they feel they will gain something that will put them ahead of others. On a basic level, this speaks to three of the needs:

  • Power
  • Status
  • Independence

You can take this further with the words you use after “How to”. This is done in combination with what the piece is teaching. For example:

  • How to Find Peace in a Chaotic World. (Tranquility)
  • How to Be the Envy of the Golf Course. (Honor, Status)
  • How to Travel on a Budget. (Saving)

See how this works? You have simple, to the point titles, but you are engaging the reader on several levels of basic needs. The more you can touch on without seeming obvious, the more likelihood of the reader actually reading your piece.

The Listicle

You are familiar with this article style. It is the typical listing of a number of related items in list form. You can use title such as:

  • The Top Ways to …
  • The Best/Worst…
  • Five Benefits of….

Again, you want to keep the basic needs in mind and try to include as many as is logically possible in your title. Listicles work exceptionally well because they play to an individual’s need for order. With so much of the world being beyond our control, anything that is orderly draws attention immediately. It creates a sense of control. This is especially true if you can include numbers in the title.

You can further increase the likelihood of someone continuing past the headline with numbers if you keep a couple of additional things in mind.

  • Odd numbers are more appealing than even ones. People tend to mistrust even numbers more. For a reason yet unknown, people are more likely to put their guard up when they encounter an even number than they are when they encounter an odd one.
  • The only exception to the odd number rule is when the number is a multiple of ten. Multiples of ten are a large part of society and they feel natural and comforting.

One reason the listicle is almost as popular as the how-to is that it allows the reader to feel that it won’t take long to read. They can divide reading into tiny bite-sized pieces throughout the day and this makes reading less intimidating.


The step-by-step article is a variation of both the listicle and the how-to. This piece lays out in an orderly fashion the steps needed to do something. It can be a powerful motivator in regards to motivating a reader to continue. You are not only teaching the reader how to do something, but you are doing it in an orderly way that takes the confusion out of the whole process. Some examples of this are:

  • Three Steps to Getting a Raise
  • Five Steps to Tighter Abs
  • The Step-by-Step Guide to Prize-winning Roses

Warning – You Need This Now

That caught your attention, didn’t it? You wanted to find out what you needed and why. Your curiosity hit a high level. This headline almost always works, but you do need to make sure that once you use the word “warning” you follow it up with something that creates curiosity. This is one headline where you not only need to intentionally appear vague with the use of words such as this or these, but you also need to use powerful words that create a sense of urgency such as

  • Now
  • Need
  • Have to
  • Can’t
  • Stop
  • Immediately

This is just a short example. Not only are you creating a sense of curiosity, but you are indicating that there is something important that needs to be known, and that by not finding out, the person may be missing something essential. Using this headline too often will weaken its impact, so only bring it out for special occasions.

Shhh….I Have a Secret

People love to feel special and feel like they are getting some exclusive information that not everyone has. If they feel it will put them in league with a special group, that adds to the desire to know what that information is. This leads to headlines such as:

  • What Your Boss Knows But Won’t Tell You
  • The One Thing Winners Do Every Day
  • The Secret Detail Producers Look For

Make sure that whatever follows is something that isn’t widely known or you can end up damaging your reputation and causing people to avoid your messages in the future. You don’t need to divulge some big government secret, but you do need to make sure that what you have to say is something that is valuable to the reader.

The Oddballs

There are a couple of titles that will catch attention that don’t fit into a particular category. These are titles that create curiosity simply because they seem totally illogical. Consider this:

  • What Willie Wonka, the Mad Hatter, and Mary Poppins Have in Common

At first glance, your mind says, wait, this makes no sense. Because people need order, they continue reading to try and make sense of the title. This type of title works well for those who are creative and can see connections that others may miss. In the above example, all three of these individuals lived life outside the box, yet were extremely happy.

Bringing It All Together

No one headline is going to appeal to everyone. If you take the time, however, to figure out exactly which of the basic needs your target audience is most likely to need filled or respond to, you have won the major part of the battle. Don’t try to make your title do more than it is meant to and that is to make the reader continue reading.

The human mind is one that makes the majority of decisions subconsciously, and from a place of pure emotion. If you can capture that emotion in your headline and convince the reader that continuing will fulfill a basic need, you will have a reader that will continue to return to what you have to say – as long as you follow through on that promise. This works regardless of who your audience is and where they spend their days.