Secrets for Successful Subheads

Read the original article by Ann Wylie.

What if I told you there was a magic wand that kept readers reading and skimmers scanning — even after their attention begins to wane?

Friends, there is such a tool, and it’s called a subhead. Problem is, most communicators leave this essential element out of their messages. Many others write subheads that suck.

So why subheads? And how can you write compelling ones?

Why subheads?

Subheads are those short headings that appear within the body copy. For example, in this piece, “Why subheads?” is a subhead. “Keep readers reading, skimmers scanning” is known as the deck.

Subheads can help you:

  • Get Google’s attention. Subheads get a header. That means Google “pays attention” (I believe that’s the technical term) to your subheads to “figure out” (again, please forgive all of the scientific language here) how to rank your piece on search engine results pages.
  • Keep readers reading. “Subheads increased reading for skimmers and for those whose attention was beginning to wane,” according to The Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack III study.
  • Communicate to nonreaders. Well-written subheads can convey your key ideas to flippers, skimmers and others who won’t read your paragraphs, no matter what.
  • Draw readers in. A compelling subhead can turn skimmers into readers.
  • Break copy up. Good subheads break copy up into accessible, bite-sized chunks. And when your message looks easier to read, more people will read it.
  • Make your message more memorable. “A writer who knows the big parts can name them for the reader” with subheads, writes Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at The Poynter Institute. “The reader who sees the big parts is more likely to remember the whole story.”

Write subheads that work.

So how can you write subheads that draw people in, keep readers reading and summarize your key ideas for skimmers?

1. Make thinking visual. Subheads show the architecture of your piece. So if you created a traditional outline for your message, what would topics I, II and III be? Label those parts with subheads. and add one more subhead to separate the body of your message from its conclusion. If your story has three parts, then you should have four subheads.

2. Say something with subheads. Scanners should be able to learn your key ideas just by reading your subheads. So write robust subheads that, taken together, communicate the gist of your message.

3. Avoid label subheads. Don’t just label a section of your copy with the topic “Mortgage services,” for instance. Tell the reader something: What about mortgage services?

If your subheads say “Problem,” “Solution” and “Result,” for instance, then you’re essentially telling readers, “read below to find out what the problem, solution and results are.”

That’s not scanning, that’s reading! Instead of trying to force skimmers to read, explain the problem, solution and results in the subheads themselves.

4. Answer, don’t just ask, questions. If you raise a question in the subhead, then answer it in display copy — a boldfaced lead-in, highlighted key words or a bulleted list, maybe.

Our first subhead in this story asks, “Why subheads?” for instance. The bold-faced lead-ins in the bulleted list below answer that question.

5. Keep subheads short. Limit subheads to one line. Longer, and they’ll start looking like text, not display copy. And then you’ll lose the attention-grabbing power of subheads. 

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