After having a complete meltdown in my last semester at music conservatory, I needed a healthy hobby. I eventually found yoga and loved it. I completed a yoga teacher training in 2012, but didn’t really have an outlet after graduation to practice or improve my teaching — living in a metropolis often means there are a hundred yoga instructors within a one-mile radius of you at any given time. The neighborhood studios were already saturated with experienced teachers.

In an attempt to reach anyone who would listen (And justify the $2,500 I had just dropped for my certification), I scooped up some classes at a big-box gym in the suburbs. “Power vinyasa flow” was the name of the class, referring to a quick athletic style of yoga, but I was given creative control on the sequence to be taught each week, and usually opted for a slower, more focused approach. I built class attendance numbers over the next few months through quality instruction, painstakingly curated playlists, and befriending regular students. That’s how you do it if you want to grow your audience, right?

Wrong. Three months in, the general manager of the gym changed the name of the class to “Slow burn” — and class attendance instantly doubled. The clearer title gave people intimidated by yoga far better expectations on the type of exercise they were getting themselves into. My teaching efforts mattered, but the external signage ultimately mattered way more.

The same goes for headlines in your writing. Good writers know that headlines are critical to the success of an article. Headlines are your signage, and good writers tap into how our minds are wired to encourage curiosity, clicks, and page views. In fact, day in and day out, good writers intentionally hijack your brain over and over again in one of four ways.

Attract More Readers With The “Amygdala Hijack”

A headline can be as important, if not more important, than the content itself; a study found that 59 percent of articles shared on social media and engaged with aren’t even clicked on in the first place. Like it or not, readers often use the headline of your article to make a snap judgment about your writing.

“Practice a more skeletal headline style and you’ll learn how to pack more punch and intention into each word you write.”

The secret sauce of successful headlines involves tapping into the amygdala, the emotional center of the human brain. When activated, the amygdala will temporarily outrun other parts of your brain responsible for information processing, such as your frontal lobe. Psychologist Daniel Goleman coined the term “amygdala hijack” to describe this sometimes-irrational fear response; we want this in headline writing because it elicits immediate action and more clicks.

Research has shown that when we’re curious, we’re more likely to expend precious resources such as time to find out more information. When zinged by a great headline, readers will drop everything. The job of a headline, and your overall copy, is to deliver an emotional charge that suspends logic, creates tension, and can only be relieved with a click.

The good news is that you don’t have to be a wordsmith or a literary genius to write great headlines. As someone who pitches editors day in and day out, I see firsthand what gets opened, accepted, and published, and headlines are one of the easiest and most ubiquitous ways to move the needle for subject matter in any industry. So here are four science-backed techniques that will make your next headline more persuasive.

#1: Cultivate A Sense Of Urgency

Good writers thread urgency into a headline to hijack your brain and make you click before you can even really think about why you’re clicking. Urgency creates a psychological experience in which we feel we must act now, not later, and is a tried-and-true tactic used by copywriters and successful people. Here are three of the most popular triggers:

Reader validation

In reader validation, your headline surfaces the reader’s psychological fear of being an impostor or not belonging, which creates tension. The example headline “9 Truths About Morning Productivity Only Successful People Know” encourages you to click and read because you crave external validation that you are successful.

Passage of time

Passage of time is another effective urgency trigger because it elicits the pain of being slowed down or held back. Will the prospective reader fall behind in their career or miss out on a sweet discount if they don’t click? “Last workshop of 2020 closes this Friday!” elicits pain when the reader knows they would benefit from attending the workshop now rather than later.


Scarcity is an especially powerful urgency trigger for marketing and sales because it overrides one of the most nagging and obstructive human conditions: procrastination. It creates speed in a different way; in this case, your thought patterns are disrupted when you realize the thing you want may disappear soon. Scarcity usually highlights limited supply; even if you were to act within the given time window, you may still miss out. “7 spots left and they’re going fast — you in?” is a dead-simple email newsletter subject line packed with scarcity and speed. An early-bird number of spots will almost always outperform an early-bird deadline.

Some marketers or writers try to overuse the amygdala hijack and create fake urgency scenarios that aren’t actually real. Please be cautious about using fake urgency; if you say an added bonus expires this Friday, then continue to promote it to me again and again, you’ll erode my confidence and trust in your brand.

#2: Incorporate Numbers, Adjectives, And Specificity

The more synapses we can get firing, the better. Specificity creates a more vivid experience in the brain, and language about how information will be presented puts readers at ease because it’s one less thing for them to process. The more real a headline feels to someone, the more likely they are to engage with your content.

Numbers create specificity and engage the brain, especially when represented as a digit rather than a word (“5” instead of “five”). In fact, one study found that when we don’t know how long something will take, we experience that time differently. Another reason listicles have become so popular is that numbers outline upcoming content, which saves your brain from having to shift from emotion to logic; as a result, your emotional brain continues to run the show. Research from Conductor showed that 36 percent of respondents preferred a number in the headline. Descriptive adjectives also light up a reader’s brain and increase the overall synaptic activity happening in the reader’s mind.

#3: Drum Up Curiosity

An analysis by BuzzSumo of 100 million headlines showed that, when it comes to traffic and click-through, curiosity is king. In our brains, curiosity is part of a reward pathway; we instinctively seek new ideas or information because it sometimes leads to a reward. (This is another reason why reader validation works; even when the information ends up not being new, confirmation that you’re in the right activates your reward system.)

Research also indicates that our brains assign a greater proportion of dopamine release to learning new information. Dr. Todd Kashdan, a lifelong researcher on curiosity, notes that there are different flavors of curiosity and different sensitivities to each from person to person. For some readers, dangling a puzzle to solve will get the click, while for others a more effective trigger to pull back the curtain and reveal how a certain group of people approach a topic. Since we all have different curiosity archetypes, there’s no one magic headline formula that will appeal to everyone; learn and try out multiple approaches.

#4: Keep It Clean

“How long should my headline be?” Everyone has an opinion. Optimal subject line and headline length is a hot topic, and three conflicting reports are often cited. Outbrain researched that headlines that are 16–18 words in length tend to outperform ones that are shorter or longer. Social media company Buffer, however, says an ideal headline is six words, and also backs up their claim with research. And an analysis done by Mailchimp of their millions of users found that headline length didn’t impact open rate at all.

A good exercise for any writer is to practice getting the point across in as few words as possible to start. Practice a more skeletal headline style and you’ll learn how to pack more punch and intention into each word you write.

“In our brains, curiosity is part of a reward pathway.”

Even as honest, hard-working writers, we must stir up emotion in our headlines if we want to help our audience. When your headlines leverage hard-wired emotional responses, objections vanish. Use these tactics to motivate your audience and you’ll see more page views and clicks immediately.

Thanks for reading. 🙏🏼

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