Communication skills

Stuck on your headline? Use this cheat sheet of 16 formulas.

- August 8, 2018 4 MIN READ

It doesn’t matter how tasty your content is. If you haven’t created a mouthwatering golden crust, no-one will want a bite out of it. Try these headline formulas in your next epic piece of writing.

Have you ever written an article you were really proud of?

Possibly your best piece with plenty of juicy research, spot on quotes, and an epic conclusion?

Writing that actually sounds interesting, inspiring, and jam-packed full of practical tips your audience will love.

You know the one I’m talking about.

You quickly write a headline and gleefully hit ‘Publish’, brimming with sweet anticipation.

Your headline’s real job

Two days later, your heart sinks like a sad, inflated balloon. Only 2 likes. No shares. No comments. No bites from publishers. No love.

Where did you go wrong?

A quick check into Google Analytics and you find the article got 5 clicks. From 3 unique users.

Your headline isn’t doing its job.

It’s like slow cooking the ingredients of your signature dish: beef and mushroom pie. The beef becomes tender and juicy after 8 hours. Red wine adds a rich depth and oozes flavour into the sauce. The mushroom soaks up all that tasty goodness.

Then you leave the oven on too high and walk away… only to find an unsightly burnt pie top. No-one apart from you will taste the scrumptiousness beneath.

Like the pie, if your headline doesn’t attract, no-one will dare take a bite of the first line in your article.

Headline formulas and why they work

There are a few reasons why and how a page ranks well. Very simply, it comes down to this:

When you do a Google search, you expect useful content asap, right?

A page that shows up on the first page of Google tells us something is working for that page. The content on the page has been helpful for other people who have searched for similar keywords or phrases. The headline has grabbed attention enough for people to click on the article… again and again.

So to learn what headline formulas work, I thought of a few burning problems and typed in the keywords into Google.

Below are formulas based on the headlines I found on first page Google search results.

For example

I searched: ‘why does my business need a mailing list’

This came up: ‘7 experts on why building your email list is so important’

So our headline formula: <Number> experts on why <doing something> is so important

Headline formulas and why they work

Common headline themes

Browsing through the headlines of highly ranked pages, I found there are common ways to angle a headline to grab attention. The headline formulas have been grouped by these five themes with a brief explanation of why they work:

  1. Questions or problems
  2. Numbers
  3. Curiosity
  4. Credibility
  5. How to

Questions or problems

Formula 1: Why <do something>? <Number> reasons why your <something> is #1

Example: Why build an email list? 11 Reasons why your list is #1

Formula 2: Are you making these <Number> beginner mistakes to avoid?

Example: Are you making these 11 beginner workout mistakes to avoid?

Formula 3: <Ask question>

Example: Do men and women need the same amount of sleep?

Why this works:

When you repeat the reader’s question, it shows you understand them. And being understood may be even more important than feeling loved


Formula 4: <Number>beginner tips for making a professional-quality <item>

Example: 5 Beginner tips for making a professional-quality online video

Formula 5: <Number> ways to get more <desired outcome>

Example: 11 ways to get more (real!) Instagram followers

Formula 6: How to increase <something> by <impressive number of desired outcome>

Example: How to increase website traffic by 250k+ monthly visits

TIP: It’s better to use numbers as numerals than words on the web.

Why this works:

It’s been done to death, but we still seem to love numbers in headlines. Eyetracking studies have found numbers typed out as numerals literally stops the wandering eye. It represents hard facts and is a more compact (and attractive) way to take in information. It boosts credibility which can only be good for your page right?


Formula 7: Revealed: Why <doing something> is so important today! URGENCY

Example: Revealed: Why building your email list is so important today!

Formula 8: Biggest <burning problem> mistakes beginners make

Example: Biggest weight loss mistakes beginners make

Formula 9: How to <do something> without <common way people may think you have to do something>

Example: How to increase your website traffic without SEO

Why this works:

We’re informavores (yeah, that’s really a thing). Our brains lap up information the same way it laps up food and sex. We’re hard-wired for curiosity.


Formula 10: <Number> experts on why <doing something> is so important

Example: 7 experts on why building your email list is so important

Formula 11: <Source> scientists find <result of burning question>

Example: Duke University scientists find women need more sleep than men

Formula 12: <Number> <credibility / curiosity word> ways to <do something>

Example: 23 proven ways to drive traffic to your website

Why this works:

An opinion on its own is weak. Reliable sources give objectivity to an opinion. Experts are widely perceived as credible and our brains use statistics to make objective decisions.

How to

Formula 13: Why every <your target audience> needs a <something> (and how to get/build/grow one)

Example: Why every new business needs en email list (and how to build one)

Formula 14: <Number> mistakes beginners make and how to correct them

Example: 10 weight loss mistakes beginners make and how to correct them

Formula 15: Want to <do something>? Follow these <number> steps

Example: Want to increase website traffic? Follow these 4 steps

Why this works:

Learning how to do something (or what not to do) is a natural human need. Lifelong learning helps us adapt to change, get bigger paychecks, and ultimately live richer and more fulfilling lives.

Headlines can include a mix of these approaches.

For example:

Formula 16: <Number> mistakes beginners make and how to correct them (or avoid them)

Example: 10 weight loss mistakes beginners make and how to correct them

This formula uses numbers, curiosity, and a ‘how to’.

Choose your words carefully

Every word counts in a headline. So choose each one carefully. Here are 5 persuasive copywriting words backed by research: You, Free, Because, Instantly, New.

First impressions count

It doesn’t matter how tasty your content is. If you haven’t created a mouthwatering golden crust, no-one will want a bite out of it.

Legendary copywriter Gene Schwartz sums up the purpose of a headline in his book Breakthrough Advertising:

‘To stop your prospect and compel him to read the second sentence…’
‘The more of your story you can force your prospect to read, the more thoroughly you can sell him’

Try these headline formulas in your next epic piece of writing. I’d love to know how you go.

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  • Andrew Caska

    Caska IP Patent Attorneys

    'Flying Solo opened up so many doors for us - I honestly don't know where I'd be without it"