When it comes to your website, the most powerful words BY FAR are your headline.

It’s the first thing people look for on a web page: the sentence or phrase that stands out from the rest of the copy and answers their biggest question:

What am I going to get out of this experience?

woman writingWhen I write copy for a website homepage – either for myself or clients – I can spend up to 30% – 40% of the time developing the headline.

So if the homepage takes 10 hours to write, that’s three to four hours for an 8- to 15-word headline.

Why so much time for so few words?

Your headline has to…

  • Grab people’s attention
  • Let them know what they’re going to get out of exploring your site
  • Give them a feel for who you are
  • Inspire them to dig deeper and learn more about you

… And it’s got to do that in roughly 20 words or less.

How do you create a real humdinger?

Here’s the process I follow:

  1. I tell my internal editor to take a hike
  2. I spend an hour or so brainstorming and getting as many ideas down on paper as possible (I usually write in a notebook for this stage)
  3. I type up my brainstormed list of ideas into a Word doc, adding more thoughts and ideas as they occur to me
  4. I look through the list and highlight the ideas I like best
  5. I move the highlighted ideas to a separate document and examine them to see which one jumps out at me the most
  6. I invite my internal editor back into the room and get down to the business of expanding and refining the ideas on my shortlist
  7. I take my favourite idea and start working on it, looking at different ways to express the same thought or alternative angles to explore
  8. I look at my this new sub-list of ideas and choose the most powerful – in terms of “attention-grabbiness” (is too a word!), meaning, and appeal
  9. I focus on making it as specific, powerful, and “punchy” as possible, editing out any unnecessary wordiness
  10. I set it aside for the moment and start working on the introductory body copy to see if the headline flows easily into a larger explanation of the experience you offer your customers or clients
  11. If it’s not working I’ll look back at my original shortlist of ideas and see if any of the others jump out as strong possibilities
  12. I repeat steps 9 & 10 until I come up with an idea that easily flows into body copy that works
  13. I refer back to the headline often to see if it still seems like the best choice

I repeat step 13 roughly a gazillion times during the course of the project, revising the headline and intro body copy as necessary.

Sometimes the first strong idea ends up being the one I go with – but more often the headline changes at least two or three times before I land on the final version.

Get feedback from knowledgeable friends

Once you have a headline you think is a winner, show it to friends or colleagues who know a lot about your business and customers and ask them for their honest feedback.

If two or more people say they’re not wowed by your headline, don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board and try again. All writers have to kill their darlings at some point – and if your headline isn’t doing the best possible job of grabbing people’s attention, conveying your value, and inspiring people to explore your site further, it’s not fulfilling its purpose.

Give yourself the time you need

As you can see, writing a strong headline can be a long and involved process. The first idea that pops into your head is most likely not going to be the one you end up going with – and that’s okay.

Don’t beat your head against a wall, expecting the perfect idea to fall out. Give yourself time to explore a bunch of different possibilities – and if you find one you like but then go back to it and discover that maybe it’s not as awesome as you thought it was, give yourself the freedom to change it as many times as necessary until you land on one that you truly love – and that works.

Sometimes “good enough” is good enough

Don’t stress out if the ultimate MOST AWESOMELY PERFECT HEADLINE EVER doesn’t come to you – even after you’ve gone back to the drawing board several times. If you’ve been holding off on a much-needed website overhaul just because you don’t think your headline is strong enough, don’t let that stop you.

I see a lot of business owners get halfway through a website redo and then come to a screeching halt because they haven’t got a “great” headline.

I’m a huge fan of imperfect action and think that it’s almost always better to do SOMETHING than do nothing at all. If your headline is serviceable and gets your point across well enough (even if it doesn’t smack people over the head with its awesomeness) then use it for now just so you can get your new website OUT THERE, knowing that you can always go back and add a new headline later.

Most importantly…

… have fun with it!

Treat your headline like a word puzzle or game. You’ve only got so many words to play with… which ones will you choose – and how will you arrange them?

Let the games begin!