business development, craft

Grab ‘Em By The Eyeballs; A Case Study of Good and Bad Headlines

Just my luck – sometimes a thing just falls right into your lap.

Like on LinkedIn the other day, I saw this:


Wow, a great side-by-side case study on good and bad headlines, and a cautionary tale of poor click through execution.

Grab ‘Em By The Eyeballs

Your headlines are supposed to get attention. They’re the thing that makes someone stand up and take notice. It’s the waaaah! of a foghorn sounding after a hockey goal, telling you to check the JumboTron for the replay. It’s the bright burst of fireworks against the pitch-black sky signaling that you’d better look that way. It’s the thing that pulls you out of your regularly-scheduled post-lunch stupor and kicks your butt into gear.

In order to make this kind of effect, your headline has to be dramatic. It has to command attention. It has to be succinct, yet also powerful. Which one of these two meets that criteria – “Helping Franchise Owners” or “WE’RE SO DISAPPOINTED”.


In fact, this was so intriguing to me that I read the subhead. I did exactly what this ad wanted me to.

Helping Franchise Owners may be factual, it may be short, it may be on-target.

But it’s not attracting my eye. So in that sense, it failed.

It’s not just the ALL-CAPS that do it for me, either. What this headline did was create some kind of mystery or question in my own mind.

Why would they be disappointed? That’s exactly the opposite of the traditional marketing message. “Hey, we’re so good, we can’t wait to tell you about it.”

Not this time. “Uh oh, something bad happened!”

Oooh, It. Just. Got. Interesting. What might the rest of the content be?

As for those who are helping franchise owners, I don’t really care. I’m not a franchise owner, I don’t have any intentions of being one, I don’t know those who might be, and so I’m not really attracted to their message. I’m not going to pay attention at all.

At the outset, most of those statements could also be said of BHG, as well. I likely don’t know their business model, their target audience, or even their industry. It’s more likely that I’m not a prospect than that I am. So, again, why did I pay attention to this headline, and not the other?

Because of that mystery factor. That shake-up to the traditional marketing message of “Have you heard how wonderful we are? No? Let me shove some sales collateral down your throat then!”

You know what we (in the audience) feel like when that happens?


Yeah, that doesn’t sit well with us.

So, how do you help your audience move from nauseated to interested?

Various ways. Here, it’s the the mystery factor. “WE’RE SO DISAPPOINTED” is much less ramming something right down my throat and more welcoming me with a gentle aroma, teasing me, inviting me to come investigate the unknown on my own.

Other ways to create great headlines may include a major promise or claim, or really digging in the audience’s pain point with a targeted message, like a precision deep-tissue massage.

Generic “Helping Franchise Owners” doesn’t speak to any kind of mystery, big promise, or pain. It’s blah. It’s bland. It’s forgettable.

And it’s only survived this long because of the side-by-side comparison to something good.

That good headline, WE’RE SO DISAPPOINTED, drew me in. It grabbed me by my eyeballs (a Clayton Makepeace original) and intrigued me enough to read on.

So I did! And I found the subhead: We really want to show you why so many health care professionals choose BHG.

That’s a good line, right there.

Subheads Are For Closers

This sub-headline (subhead) continues to build the mystery. “We really want to show you…” implies, again, that there may be some nefarious force holding them back.

Might it be a regulator, who might not let this new product hit the market, because of the disruption it will bring? Bad for oversight power, but good for customers! I’d want to know about that.

Might it be company management, who are afraid of the news of a special discount getting out, leading to more orders than they can handle and tanking their profits? Again, good for customers, bad for shareholders. I’d want to hear about that too!

Might it be the industry giants, who are so protective of their own market share that they’ll go to great lengths to suppress this information? Once more, bad for greedy fat-cats, but good for customers. Gimme gimme gimme!!!

The point is, the subhead continued the theme of a mystery, drawing me in further and convincing me to click through.

BHG – 2;

Mental Barriers to Sale – 0.

Folks, this means BHG is winning. They’ve converted a previously unaware random person on the internet (me) into someone at least remotely interested in what they have to say. Good on them!

[As an aside, does anybody know what the other subhead said? The one about helping franchise owners? I don’t. Because there was absolutely no reason to care.]

At this point, I still don’t know who BHG is, what they do, or who they do it for. But I’m doing what they wanted. They’ve got an eager prospect dangling on the hook, just waiting to be reeled in.

Now it’s time to close.

Don’t Bonk The Landing Page

Unfortunately for BHG, this is where things went wonky. They had me by my eyeballs –  interested! Curious! And ready to do something!

They had me taking action. I clicked to “Learn More”, just as they said. What special mystery was I going to uncover?

Unfortunately, none.

Instead of a compelling landing page with a big headline further developing the promise from the advertisement, I saw this:

snip_BHG_poor follow-up


As my daughter would say, big oof.

Total let-down after the intrigue promised, and curiosity built up in my mind. And, because I’m not that special, I know that others also felt the same way finding that page. More potential clients did the same thing as I did – they clicked on a link, then immediately hit a wall. BONK.

BHG missed out on keeping my attention, by failing to match my curiosity sparked by the ad with the landing page.

Where’s the mystery? What was it that you couldn’t say to us? Did it somehow get buried behind that loan calculator? If I just randomly click through a few times, will I get there?


Believe me, I tried.

It’s all about loan payment calculation.

As if that was any kind of mystery at all.

I think BHG lost like 10 points with that exchange. And I raised my barriers to sale by a comparable amount.

BHG: -2

Mental Barrier to Sale: +10

Now, I’m winning. And I have a bad feeling about BHG because of it.

It felt like a bait-and-switch experience.

I was promised a mystery. I got a formula.

Who gives a flip about a formula? I don’t need BHG to do that. I can call up my current banker and get a projection of a loan payoff, if that’s what I want. Or need.

I wanted to know that secret that they promised. I wanted to know the unique, special, insider tip that I, and only I, as a visitor to their website, was going to profit from. I wanted that special feeling that I would have had if I’d been given the handshake to get me in to the secret club.

I didn’t get it.

So they don’t get my business.

All they get is derision and scorn here, for being so close, and yet, so far.

Could They Have Done Better?

You bet your sweet bippy they could. Here are some headlines and subheads that would have 1) grabbed the audience by the eyeballs, and 2) stayed consistent with the theme of the landing page.

You NEED to Expand Your Healthcare Business

Don’t waste a minute with overpriced bank loans.

Get Money, Make Healthy

Your healthcare business can do so much more. Let us help you finance it.

Do More, Heal More, Pay Less

Join the growing number of healthcare professionals transforming their communities and saving money at the same time.

Any one of these would have been both eyeball-grabbing and true to the resultant landing page. It might not have gotten quite a many clicks from potentially disinterested people like me, but those who did would be much more likely to continue their buyer’s journey in an appropriate state of mind.

Alternatively, they could have written a true landing page to capitalize on the mystery they generated with the ad. That landing page would have expanded the headline, established credibility, promised value, etc. All of those steps would have drawn me, as a reader / user, through the process of learning to trust the business on the other side (BHG) as a lending partner, giving me access to something I didn’t have before, or maybe an advantage over my competitors.

At the end, then, when you’ve gotten me sufficiently hooked, I’ll give you my credit score, address, and phone number, because you’ve actually given me a reason to.

Without it, you’re just wasting time for both of us. You didn’t get a quality lead, and I didn’t get to improve my position, solve my problem, or advance my own career.

That’s what I wanted. I wanted to fulfill my naked self-interest.

Instead, I got sold something completely unrelated.

You know how I feel about that?


Better luck next time, BHG.

In Case You Missed It: Good Headlines Work

Headlines which suggest mystery, solve a problem, or eliminate pain are great for grabbing attention.

A word of caution, though: They are a necessary condition, not sufficient in and of themselves.

Appropriate follow-through is essential. Don’t miss out and let a potential prospect get away because you bonk the landing page. Your business can’t afford it.



Hey! If you don’t want to leave your audience disgusted at the way you follow-through on your headlines, give me a call. I’ll help you make sure your headlines have intriguing, attractive promises, and that you follow-through effectively. It’s the smart thing to do.

better language, business development, craft, Writing improvement

What “Show, Don’t Tell” Means, and How To Use It To Your Advantage

What “Show, Don’t Tell” Really Means

There’s an adage in fiction writing that goes “Show, don’t tell”. The basic point is that if you want the reader to believe that it’s cold outside, you’ll be much more effective at getting that point across when you include specific, memorable details about what it means to be cold, rather than bland, unemotional facts about the weather.

snowy pathway surrounded by bare tree
Photo by on

For example, you could say “It was -10 degrees outside. Jack thought it was colder than he’d ever seen. He decided to hurry.” That’s probably only going to matter and be relevant to people who’ve actually been outside in weather that’s close to -10 degrees. That’s not a lot of us. So you’ve told us that it’s cold, but we can’t really feel it. Plus, you’ve done all the imagination for us when you told us exactly what Jack decided. We become impartial observers in the scene, and we really don’t care about Jack and what’s happening. We’re disengaged, and we don’t really have a lot of incentive to continue reading.

As an alternative, consider this: “Jack stepped out of the door and immediately everything froze. Even his eyelashes turned brittle in the wind. He spit, and the residue crackled on his lips. His fingers were lead pipes at the end of thicker lead pipes that used to be his arms. Holy shit, he thought. I better make this quick.

Do you see how much more effective that second option is? Here we’ve shown what it means to be cold. The reader can imagine what it would feel like to be in such brutal conditions. They can put themselves in Jack’s place, and that makes a much more engaging narrative.

This writer is going to get people reading the rest of this scene and the next, because those readers are invested in the story. They’ve been given something to do, some reason to read the story, and that’s why they’re going to continue to engage and enjoy the experience.

So – what does that have to do with writing for your business? Whether it’s external-facing materials (case studies, website content, even books and blogs) or internal content (memos, quarterly reports, or task prioritization, for example) consider the principle of Show, don’t tell when you’re drafting for more engagement and greater effectiveness.

How to Use “Show, Don’t Tell” in Business Writing

Let’s say you’re writing up the quarterly earnings report for an insurance company, and you want to highlight the negative effect of the most recent poor experience in claims. You could say “Claims were 3% higher than anticipated last month and 5% higher for the year. We forecast this will lead to lower earnings of $697,000 for the year.”

Yes, it’s factual. Yes, it’s true. But does it show the impact of what’s happened? Or does it require the audience to try and come up the effects on their own? Don’t force them to do that. You’re the expert, you’ve got all the information at your fingertips, use it to tell a good story that drives future action.

Here are three tips for including more “showing” in your business writing, for greater impact than simply “telling”.

“Showing” Tip #1: Get Specific

Instead of saying “claims were 5% higher for the year,” consider adding specific, relevant details that will help the audience to relate this to their past experience or current situation.

“Claims were 5% higher at the end of this month compared to plan, and it’s across the board. The Binkenberger line was 7% higher, the Bergerbinken line was 4% higher, and the Gerberkinben line was 3% higher. Something’s going on. We’ve got to do some investigation immediately.”

That’s a very different situation from the following:

“Claims were 5% higher this month than a year ago, and it’s due to one anomaly. The Zoomfelder account had a million-dollar hit that was in the 95th percentile of unlikelihood. Everything else was right on target. Overall, this is going to affect earnings by $697,000 after reserve release, but we can handle that and explain it easily to stakeholders.”

If you don’t do the appropriate showing for your audience, they won’t know which message to take away. So by adding specific, relevant details, you’ve significantly changed the output message. And you’ve given the audience something easier to connect with than bland facts.

“Showing” Tip #2: Consider Using A Symbolic Representation

Symbolic representations are literary devices like a simile or a metaphor. Use them to create greater impact with the audience by relating what you’re talking about to what they know. “A loss of $697,000 for the year is really going to impact our shareholders. Average shareholders are expecting a $20,000 distribution of profits at the end of the year. This is going to reduce that to $15,000, which is like taking a vacation out of each of their pockets. Be prepared for some blowback.”

When you add symbols, either metaphors (“blowback” is just bad shareholder reactions, they’re not literally going to burn up the home office) or similes (“like taking a vacation…”, you don’t really know what those shareholders are going to do with their dividends) you help make it much more tangible and relevant to the audience.

“Showing ” Tip #3: Add A Little Action

Being more dynamic allows the reader to feel like there’s something happening, something that is on the move, and, as a consequence, something that can be changed, if necessary. If everything’s already done, then there’s nothing for the reader to do. They want to take action. They want to feel like it’s important that they read the report. Give them something to do!

man holding clapper board
Photo by Martin Lopez on

“A loss of $697,000 for the year is expected. However, there are 2 potential responses. First, we could accelerate the claims management restructuring program that was slated for next year into this year, potentially offsetting about $150k of that loss a bit sooner. And second, we could cash in some option contracts that we’ve been accumulating slowly and hadn’t planned to monetize for a while. This would add an additional $180k after-tax profit, thus softening the blow a little.”

Now that’s something for the audience to do, and a reason for them to have read the report!

Summary – Three “Showing” Tips

There you go: three tips for more showing, less telling in your writing: Add specific, relevant details; use some symbolic language; and add action for something to do.


The Before-And-After

So, what’s the verdict? Consider these two different ways of communicating essentially the same facts, and decide which is more valuable:

Version 1: Claims were 3% higher than anticipated last month and 5% higher for the year. We forecast this will lead to lower earnings of $697,000 for the year.

Or would you rather have the following?

Version 2: Claims were 5% higher at the end of this month compared to plan, and it’s across the board. The Binkenberger line was 7% higher, the Bergerbinken line was 4% higher, and the Gerberkinben line was 3% higher. Something’s going on. We’ve got to do some investigation immediately. In the meantime, we need to deal with the fallout. A loss of $697,000 for the year is really going to impact our shareholders. Average shareholders are expecting a $20,000 distribution of profits at the end of the year. This is going to reduce that to $15,000, which is like taking a vacation out of each of their pockets. Be prepared for some blowback. However, there are 2 potential responses. First, we could accelerate the claims management restructuring program that was slated for next year into this year, potentially offsetting about $150k of that loss a bit sooner. And second, we could cash in some option contracts that we’ve been accumulating slowly and hadn’t planned to monetize for a while. This would add an additional $180k after-tax profit, thus softening the blow a little more. How would you like to proceed?

It should be clear that adding “Show, Don’t Tell” elements to your business communications will make them more powerful, and you more effective as a storyteller.

business development, craft, Writing improvement

How to Organize Your Writing – Work Backwards

You’re not going to believe this, but this (this exact sentence, that started with “You’re not going to believe this, but this [this exact sentence…]”) was written last. Read on to find out how. More importantly, why.

Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

What’s the hardest part of writing an article (or report, or memo), whether for your industry publication, an online community, your boss or the C-suite, or even just your own blog?

Some will say the hardest part is just getting started.

Like, that big blank canvas is intimidating.


Just staring at you, mocking your inability to get out anything reasonable.

For others, it’s the organization.

What do I say first? And then? Where do I end?

For non-writers, the structure can be just as difficult as the execution.

But it doesn’t have to be.

I can’t always help with the blank page syndrome. For organizing your thoughts, though, I can at least give you a structure for how to plan and then actually write the damn thing.

And this is not about how to prove your ideas with appropriate examples, or how to develop an appropriate voice or tone. [We can talk about those other times.] This is a process for you to organize your article creation, one that I apply myself when I sit down to write.

There are about as many methods as there are professional writers’ hands. (Yes, that means some have more than one method. Don’t shoot the messenger.) I have no idea whether this will work for you as well as it does for me. But give it a shot next time you’re wondering how to get started and how to fill up the space on the page. You just might find your next great productivity hack.

With that, let’s talk about how you can develop a quality piece with all of the essential parts: an Executive Summary (or Abstract), an Introduction, the all-important Body Text, and a Conclusion. It might be counter-intuitive, but I’m actually going to recommend you plan your writing completely opposite to how your reader will experience your article.

Start With the End In Mind

Yeah, this is a reference to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And it’s a reference to Start With Why. It’s also the exact answer to the question I ask when people want my help creating content: “Why are you writing, exactly? What do you want your audience to know?”

Just start listing out the lessons you’d like them to take away once they’ve finished reading your article. They don’t have to be in order, they don’t have to be pretty, they just have to be on the page. Refinement comes later.

Prune Out The Less Effective Fluff

If you’re writing an article, you’re going to want one, or at most two, conclusions for your audience to take away afterwards. If you’ve got three or more, you’ll have to do some hard work and pick the one or two that you really want to emphasize.

The great thing about having written all of them out, though, is that you’re not banishing those ideas to the hinterland, never to return again. If they’re related, plan them for another article! If they are absolutely integral to the understanding of the most important one or two, then maybe it’s not an article but should be delivered in a longer format: a series of articles, a White Paper, or even an eBook.

Once you’ve identified your audience’s most important take-away, it’s time to get busy.

Create Strong Roots

You’re still not actually writing at this point. You’re doing more outlining than anything else: these are the two conclusions that lead to final answer #1, and these are the four theories which support those two conclusions, and these are the ten data points which underlie the four theories.

Create your outline as if you were working from the trunk of a tree down into the roots: trace back all of your supporting arguments to their fundamental causes, and map out how you’re going to lead the reader from one item to the next.

When you’ve got a comprehensive outline, then you can start to write the Body Text. But maybe not from the beginning to the end.

Don’t Assume You Have To Write Linearly

Your audience is going to read from the start to the finish, obviously. That’s what we’re trained to do from age six.

But you, as the author, as the sculptor of their journey through your article, don’t need to actually write section one before section two. Write what’s most comfortable first, and get into the rhythm that way. Work out the kinks of your tone and voice with the elements that are most automatic, because you will often spark other ideas you didn’t expect as you’re firing across all your neurons.

Photo by The Digital Marketing Collaboration on Unsplash

You’ll find that you spend your time working on the various parts of the Body Text in spurts. It’s a little chaotic and can be hard to get used to, especially for linearly-inclined brains.

Don’t be surprised, though, if you end up appreciating this more flexible approach.

For me, even in this article, I’ve been jumping around on the page, moving words and whole paragraphs at a time, sometimes leaping from section to section, to capture what’s coming out of my head at that moment. I don’t want to be rigidly tied to the “first-to-last” order when I’m being creative.

That’s just not how our brains work. They make connections we didn’t see at times we didn’t expect. Go with it. Learn to embrace the volatility and minimal direction. You have time for refinement later.

Write Your Conclusion Next-to-Next-to-Last

Your Conclusion should summarize the important lessons you identified at the beginning. You may have even written the conclusion right after you outlined. That’s okay, and it’s a good check

When you write the conclusion, then, read back over your text and ask yourself, Where did I say that? It’s a good opportunity to check your work and confirm that you’ve gotten everything you wanted into the text itself. If you can’t find where you proved what you wanted to, go back to the text and add a section, drop in an example, or make the logical development of the idea more obvious.

And Your Introduction Next-to-Last

You want to have all of the details of your article (or report or memo) already finished before you write the introduction and conclusion. If you start at the introduction, you might find yourself introducing more ideas than you actually have space for. Then, you’ll end up trying to write the article to conform to the specifications you set out in the introduction. This can lead to output that’s too long, or unfocused, or wandering.

You’ll keep on track by remembering your structure and only writing the Conclusion after you’ve clearly laid out the salient points in the text itself.

After the Body matches the Conclusion, you’ll be able to write the right Introduction, one that appropriately sets the stage for what’s to come. Don’t give away too much information too early, because that’s what the text is for.

Get Feedback and Revise

No matter how clear you think you are in your prose, with your examples, or based on your outline, you probably won’t get it right the first time. Mostly this is due to “inside-the-jar” syndrome. If you’re in a jar of your own problems, you can’t read the label that tells what those problems are, because you’re inside the jar!

You need an outside perspective. Have a friend or colleague read your draft and tell you the ABCD’s: what’s Awkward, what’s Boring, what’s Confusing, or what’s Drifting (off-topic).

Once you have an idea of where you’re going wrong, you can take a look at your article again with impartial eyes, and refine where necessary. This is where you’ll apply your [DELETE] key liberally. It’s there for a reason.

Write the Executive Summary (or Abstract) Last

I know, I know, not everything has an Executive Summary. But many will. They’ll be a 2-sentence description of the article as a teaser, or it might even be an actual abstract or summary if you’re writing a memorandum or report. So if this part isn’t critical to your operations, you shouldn’t be spending a lot of time on it. Putting it last means you aren’t going to be doing unnecessary work if you find in the middle that you topic has changed from what you originally intended.

If everything above hasn’t convinced you not to start writing with the Executive Summary, just remember this quote: “So the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” Sure, the original context was about not being jealous of others, but it works well in this context too. What you work on last will be read first, and what you work on first will be read last.

Wrapping It Up

And you’re done! Here’s a quick review of this efficient method to create an article, report, or memo for whatever audience you’re impacting:

  1. Begin with the end in mind.
  2. Make sure you have chosen a clear message to be delivered.
  3. Work backwards through the outline.
  4. Write the Body in whatever non-linear fashion you choose.
  5. Write the Conclusion as a check that your body text includes everything you wanted.
  6. Write the Introduction.
  7. Get feedback and revise.
  8. If necessary, write the Executive Summary. You can only do this last because even though you might have an idea where it’s going to go, you can’t be sure. Putting this last ensures you set the appropriate stage.

And while you might not yet believe me, think about this: the words that you read first I wrote last, and these, that you’re reading last, I wrote (or planned) first. Game – set – match … Me.


Stephan Mathys is an author and communication strategist for actuaries, engineers, and data scientists. His forthcoming eBook is called It’s Not About the Data: 12 Communication Strategies for Left-Brain Professionals. Send an e-mail to to get a sneak peek and provide your feedback, which will obviously help improve the final version.