For the last couple of decades, I’ve had a professional relationship with words. Day in and day out, they’re always there: On my screen, 2,000 at a time for the long-form articles covering an emerging trend in patient care, 25 at a time for callouts, three to five at a time for punchy headlines, 800 at a time for columns just like this.

It should be no surprise, then, that I’ve come to believe that words aren’t just a thing that matters. Words are everything that matters. They contextualize everything you may want to communicate about a brand. They complement the wonderful visual in an ad and work to hone it into a deliberate, pointed meaning. They’re the pure lifeblood of how all of us humans engage with each other.

It’s all words, folks. Words, words, words.

Now, let’s talk about the most important words of all: Headlines. These days, in the era of tightening budgets and shifting regulatory guidelines, people in all corners of the healthcare marketing and advertising industry are struggling with exactly what the best headline words for their brands may be.

So for your consideration, here are a few different approaches to arriving at great, meaningful, memorable, high-functioning headlines.

Note: The below is specifically regarding ad campaign headlines, since they’re likely to be the first time your brand makes eye contact with its audience. Whether you’re a product manager or an up-and-coming copywriter, then this is for you.

Know the Rules, Know How to Break Them

For years, Independence Blue Cross has been running a campaign with a simple headline: “Live Fearless.” Love it or hate it, this headline has spurred countless conversations. It very, very carefully breaks the rules. Grammatically speaking, it really ought to be “Live Fearlessly,” if one is observing Every Pesky Little Nuance of English Grammar. But the people behind this campaign knew the rules—and they broke them. To great effect.

Crafting a great headline often takes exactly this deft and talented a handle on language. You can’t just throw out a headline with lousy grammar and expect it to work. The only way through to a really great, rule-bending headline is to know exactly what rules of grammar you’re breaking. So therefore, great short-form copywriters must be, first, experts on grammar. For as miserable as that may sound, it’s a necessity. They should buy a Strunk and White (or trash pick one from outside a local college English department) and read it, have it at their desks.

If you’re on the client side of our business and working with a copywriter or creative director at your agency, don’t be afraid to get into those grammar conversations.

Challenge the grammar, challenge the rules. Ask for them to be broken.

Squash and Stretch

In animation, there’s a technique called “squash and stretch.” You’ve probably seen it—it’s in pretty much every Tom and Jerry or Phineas and Ferb cartoon you’ve ever seen, and the concept goes like this: You can flex, bend, flatten, stretch, squash, or elongate forms in animation to give them a greater sense of liveliness.

The same technique can be applied when trying to think of words for headlines. Coach young copywriters to do this as they’re feet-up and staring at the dreaded blank page: Take the words of the brief and think of other words that mean the same thing. And then…squash them. Make them shorter. Think of phrases that mean that same thing, then make those phrases shorter. Bend them. Flatten. Stretch. Think around them.

And then—make them longer. Stretch them out so then go on and on out into the infinite universe and beyond until you feel like you’re out of breath and can’t possibly fit another word in but you can, trust me. Make up words that sound like those stretched-out words. Think of long phrases. Go long-form with the headline, spell it all out, make it an anthem. Twist it around.

Words have great flexibility. Turn that flexibility into memorability that works for your brand.

Brevity

Short? Great!

Stay on Brief

At Calcium, it’s standard operating procedure to adhere to an important rule for all great headlines: They support the strategy as laid out in the brief. That’s not to say that great headlines should use exactly the words found in the core idea of the brief, however! One mistake that seems to plague pharmaceutical advertising as a whole is the “pharma-dharma” concept, and one way to arrive at pharma-dharma creative is to just cycle the words from the brief up into the headline and call it a day.

Great headlines have that essential connection to the artwork of a campaign, and they bring life to the brief. They also manage to come at the brief from a completely new direction, using a set of fresh and unexpected words that we haven’t seen before. All of us creatives at Calcium are huge fans of the unused, never-before-seen words in headlines.

So let’s also see more of the unexpected words, please! These are the kinds of words that’ll really help nourish a brand. Because it’s not only about words-words-words.

It’s about grow, grow, grow.

  • Evan Young

    Evan Young is SVP, Executive Creative Director at Calcium. In two decades of working in healthcare communications, Evan has written copy in a variety of capacities, including medical journalism, and pharmaceutical and biotech marketing and advertising.

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