Most "clever" headlines are written not to provide clarity but to celebrate the copywriter's wit. That's why they fail.
Here's an example I found in a magazine a number of years ago. It was shortly before Christmas and the advertisement was for a cordless phone.
"Give the gift that's a perfect conversation piece."
You can see how the copywriter was trying to be clever. You talk with people over the phone; ergo, a phone is a conversation piece.
Of course, this line is nonsense. When was the last time you had a conversation about a cordless phone? A phone is not a conversation piece. The cleverness of the copywriter does nothing to clarify his or her message.
To find a headline in which cleverness actually adds to the clarity of the message is extremely difficult. Such lines are rare indeed.
So I was delighted to find an excellent example, just a little while ago.
I was conducting a full-day seminar on copywriting online and presented the participants with a short exercise. I held up the small, wireless remote I use for advancing my presentation slides. It's a neat little gizmo that allows me to move around a room and advance my presentation, slide by slide, without having to go anywhere near my laptop.
Here is what I asked people to do. "Write me a headline, in 12 words or less, that sells the benefits of this gizmo to speakers."
I gave everyone about five minutes and warned against trying to be too clever. "You're better off concentrating on finding the right thing to say," I advised. "Don't spend your time trying to be clever."
Fortunately, Johnny Cho of the Milken Family Foundation decided to ignore my advice and came up with the following line:
"Advance your slides without retreating to the projector."
Yes, it's clever. There's a play on words in the juxtaposition of "advance" and "retreat."
But what is different and impressive about this line is that the play on words adds value to the message.
It's valuable because the word "retreat" isn't simply the opposite of the word "advance."
The word actually captures the state of mind of the speaker or presenter. If you like to move around when you speak, you often feel a loss of flow and momentum when you have to walk back to your laptop to press a key. You really do "retreat." There is a sense of moving backwards and then having to regain the flow of your talk, until the next slide, and so on.
What Johnny Cho did so well was make his play on words actually add depth and feeling to the headline. He wrote a memorable line that also helps him connect with his audience on a meaningful level.
So, that's how you should write a clever headline, if that's your goal.
A play on words isn't enough. That play also has to add another, valuable level of meaning to the message.
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Nick Usborne speaks, writes, and consults on strategic copy issues for business online. For Web sites, e-mails and newsletters, he crafts messages that drive results. He is the author of the critically acclaimed bookNet Words - Creating High-Impact Online Copy.