The three words that taught me everything I needed to know about writing headlines

Three words taught me everything I needed to know about writing headlines.

I remember it like it was 30 something years ago.

Because it was.

We were on holiday in Portugal and had taken a day to visit a market.

I remember it being busy – in every sense of the word – bustling with people, loud as hell, with everyone moving at a pace that would make Usain Bolt seem sluggish.

I think my Dad may have even got us together in a Navy SEAL style huddle and delivered a “Never leave a man behind!” style speech before we ventured in.

We entered the market, maintaining our death grip on each other’s hands – making sure to look back every two seconds, in case we were now holding hands with a strange Portuguese chap called Antonio.

All was going well until we hit the centre of the market.

That’s when it happened. That’s when we heard it…


Immediately, we all turned in the direction of the voice.

It was clear where the shout had come from – a market trader was stood on a crate, head above the throng, about 10 metres away, eyes scanning the crowd like he was playing a particularly challenging game of “Where’s Wally?”.

He spotted us.

“Ah – you…English!”, he said with the excitement of a Hyena that’s located a wounded deer.

He shouted something else, this time in Portuguese, after which a bunch of market traders pounced on us.

The battle was on…

That’s the thing about headlines – you can get as fancy as you want, but what you really need is something that grabs people’s attention.

That’s the ONLY job of the headline.

It’s not a game of “see how many benefits and objections you can cram into one sentence while still being readable”.

It’s a game of, “HEY YOU…LOOK OVER HERE!”

If your ideal client was walking through a crowded marketplace – fearing for their safety – what could you say that would make them stop to look at you?

THAT’S your headline.

Of course, from there, you still have to keep them engaged and interested, but, don’t worry, I’ll get to that in another post…

How to avoid the B.S. detectors

“Usually this costs $499,997, but today, because you’re wearing a hat and your name rhymes with ‘Deginald’, it’s only $37!”

We read a sales page and everything’s going well – we’re nodding our head, agreeing with everything they say and reaching for our already maxed-out credit card when…


“I know we said we’d sold out, but we’ve just found a box containing 50 copies of this limited edition PDF in our warehouse…”

…and there it is.


…or, to put it more politely…

“I’ve seen this before. I know what’s coming next.”

If your audience thinks they know where you’re headed, they’re going to stop reading. 

And you’re buggered if they do that.

Your job is to keep them engaged and alert – like they’ve got front row seats to a discus throwing competition for the blind.

Write stuff that makes them WANT to keep reading, to find out what happens.

There’s an easy way to do this…

Write in YOUR voice. In YOUR style. 

Don’t be lazy and copy other people’s templates and ideas.

They wanna hear from YOU.

How would YOU say this?

Don’t worry about it being “perfect” – it ain’t about grammar. 

It’s about writing something that spurs YOUR audience to take action. 

You can’t do that if they’ve buggered off because they spotted your template.

Mr Fluffy Pants is waiting for you

When it comes to receiving compliments, this is how I usually process them.

  • 1 – Someone compliments me.
  • 2 – I feel weird and uncomfortable. Instead of sincerely thanking them for their generosity, I usually make a sarcastic comment, hoping it will calm my unease.
  • 3 – It’s only AFTER I say the comment that my brain reminds me that this never works, so now both of us are left feeling awkward.
  • 4 – The other person leaves, quickly.
  • 5 – The initial compliment is passed to my brain for processing.
  • 6 – Instead of processing it straight away, the brain takes what may be a perfectly valid compliment and starts working it over, like a toddler breaks in a new tub of Play-Doh.
  • 7 – The brain continues to knead, punch and bash the compliment until it’s not only unrecognisable, but now taken a completely different form – an insult.
  • 8 – Happy with its work. the brain, looks at the insult, edits it for maximum devastation, adds a pinch of emotion and, only then, allows it entrance to the long term memory banks, from which it can be easily recalled in the future to remind me that I’m a useless piece of shit.

Despite all this, if I ever say, “please let me know what you think…”, I really mean it.

So I did a FREE webinar.

It’s not flashy or colourful. You certainly wouldn’t hire me as a graphic designer from looking at the slides.

(There may even be of a photo of me in my underwear, I can’t remember)

Anyway, I did it and now the “Mr Fluffy Pants Webinar” is a thing.

(Don’t judge me too harshly on the name, as two of the words in the title aren’t entirely irrelevant to the content)

It’s a short lesson on how to get your business online as fast as possible.

If you haven’t been thinking about this, you should.

We need to adapt to what’s going on.

We need to take back some control.

We can’t sit around, waiting to see what happens, because no one seems to know.

The “Mr Fluffy Pants Webinar” is my way of helping.

(I did tell you it was free, right?)

If the present situation has got you thinking, “Holy shit! I need to get my business online, but HOW DO I DO THAT?”

… I think you’ll find it useful.

If you’re sat there thinking, “Holy shit! When DID Fiona Bruce start presenting Antiques Roadshow? Was it 2007 or 2008?”*…

…you won’t.

The video teaches you a very simple step by step approach to getting your ass online – as quickly and easily as possible.

Also, it’s on YouTube, so you can skip the boring bits, play it faster, make me sound like a chipmunk, and pause it when the urge to kill gets a little too much.

Yes, there is an upsell at the end, but the video gives you a complete overview of what you have to do without having to pay me any money.

If you watch it, I’d love to know what you think – genuinely.


*2008. I know, it would’ve bugged the shit out of me too.


When I heard what the doctor said, I nearly shit myself.

“It could be six months – at least – before life returns to normal…”

For me, that’s the scariest part of COVID-19 – it’s like an episode of “Lost” – no one knows what’s going to happen next, or how it’s going to end.

Will we discover that COVID is resistant to Lynx Africa, leaving a world devoid of all human life, apart from teenage boys and 44-year-old men whose mothers insist on buying them a gift set every Christmas?

Maybe it’s just God’s way of saying, “Right, that’s it. You’re all being a bunch of cretins – I want you to go to your houses and think about what you’ve done. HEY – NO MINGLING!”

No one knows. And that’s scary.

As business owners, we like to feel in control. It makes us feel safe.

Boring and predictable are good when you’re a business owner.

If you CHOOSE to ditch those networking meetings and slob around in your Spongebob Squarepants onesie all day watching Krypton Factor reruns, that’s fine…

But when you’re TOLD to stay home, that’s different. Now I WANT to get up at 5:30am, tame my wild hair (why didn’t someone remind me to get a haircut before all this?) and chat with Tony about his mobile pimple-popping business.

If you’re an “offline” business trying to find “online” opportunities, it’s even harder.

Email sequences… Sales pages… Website copy…

You know they can help you get more clients, but what do you do first… and what the hell are you meant to write?

If… wait a second…

You think there’s a pitch coming, don’t you?

I knew it. You had that look on your face.

Sorry, that’s the copywriter in me (he’s called Gerald).

It’s not a “SPECIAL OFFER!!!!” type offer.

It’s an offer – an invitation – for you to reach out if you’re clueless about the online world and want some help.

I won’t write a sales page for free, but I’ll happily give you some pointers to get you started and maybe get you a few orders.

I’m not going to craft an 8 part autoresponder sequence for fack all, but I will give you some things you can talk about in your emails to engage your customers.

Yes, what’s happening is a bit scary and, no, we don’t know when life is going to go back to normal…

… but you’re not alone.

If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.

Yes, I really mean it.

“You should’ve put a pitch in there, you dozy bastard. At least meet me halfway and include an anonymised screenshot of someone saying something nice about you…” – Gerald.

Gallows humour

“YES!”, I yelled, triumphantly, as I slammed down the phone.

“One off the caseload!”

(If you could say that to the rhythm of Alan Partridge’s, “Back of the net!”, you wouldn’t be far off)

When it comes to responding to news of a death, this wasn’t my finest hour – either as an older adult’s social worker, or a human being.*

(In my defence, it also wasn’t my worst, but I’ll save the “surprise midget vicar” story for another day)

Gallows humour – finding humour in tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one or discovering that David Hasselhoff is still alive – is a tricky thing to get right.

  • “When is it OK to cross the line? “
  • “Is it EVER OK?”
  • “Who’s responsible for drawing it?”
  • “Hang on… where the hell IS the line?”

When I was training as a social worker, I did a placement in a Child Protection team. As you can imagine, you witness a lot of unpleasantness working there, and that’s just Steve, the bastard who kept nicking my sandwiches.

You don’t work child protection because of its carefree work environment or because you think it’d be good for a laugh. You see the absolute worst society has to offer.

It’s like living in Doncaster.

If you want to survive, you need to find a way to process all the shite. If you don’t, when you get home and your wife greets you with, “Good day at work, dear?” (apparently, I live in 1955), you’ll stare hopelessly into the distance, collapse to the floor and burst into tears.

That is not good.

I was delighted to discover that Gallows humour was the way my team dealt with stress (finally my years of using humour as a defence mechanism would come into its own – suck it, Freud!). If Panorama had recorded our office behind closed doors, there would have been a national scandal.

“Sorry, is this the audio from the social work office or the maximum-security prison for offenders with Tourettes?”

It was there I noticed a pattern – the worse the horrors, the darker the humour we needed to deal with it.

If it wasn’t for gallows humour, I’d be writing this a divorced man. If I honestly answered my wife’s inquiry of “Yo! What’s up dogg?” (I really can’t get the balance right, can I?), she’d have been a mental wreck and left me after two days.

When you’re faced with that much suffering (I’m back talking about social work, not being married to me), you do whatever it takes to get through it.

It’s the same with this COVID-19 thing. We have no idea how bad it’s going to be or how long it’s going to last.

People are scared and looking for ways to make things better.

Some will use dark humour to escape – they’ll make biting comments, sarcastic posts, or share memes and inappropriate jokes.

Some will cross the line, or, more specifically, some will cross YOUR line of acceptability.

Do me a favour, would you?

Give them a break.

Start from the assumption that they’re frightened, worried and anxious and doing whatever they can to make life a little bit easier – for them and for everyone else.

See an inappropriate comment? Let that fly by.
Someone posted a cartoon you disapprove off? Keep scrolling
Someone makes a disparaging remark about 1980s pop sensation Cheryl Baker? TAKE THEM DOWN!

(There are some lines you don’t cross)

Fortunately, few people are inherently evil. Most of us are trying our best, which is hard when you’re anxious and uncertain.

If there was ever a time that showed we’re all on the same side, it’s now, so cut your teammates a little slack.

When you see something that triggers you, don’t look at the line, look at the person crossing it.

Are they OK, or could they do with some help?

* I feel the need to point out, especially given my level of jubilation, that I didn’t kill them – they died of natural causes. As I informed the Policeman as he pushed my face into his bonnet, the hammer, plastic sheeting and chainsaw I bought from B&Q the day prior were for an unrelated, and totally legitimate, domestic task. I don’t care if you believe me – the jury did and that’s all that counts.