Headline – lead – caption : small texts big time (part 2)

Headline - lead - caption : small texts big time (part 2)

Many authors waste attention on their text because they don’t pay enough attention to the small texts, i.e. the headline, preamble and caption. Headline and preamble have two similar functions:

  1. They inform the reader about the topic and the central thesis of the article.
  2. They make the reader curious about the article.

The heading was covered in Part 1 of this three-part article series. This is now about the opening credits.

You can think of it as coming out with the credits. Obviously you have something important to say to your conversation partner. There are two ways to do this: Either one blurts out the most important information without any warning, or one puts the recipient of the message on tenterhooks. Let’s take a closer look at the two possibilities.

The news preamble

Bursting out with the most important information could look like this: "Mom, I’m gay! I have been living with a man for two years in his apartment. He is a policeman. We love each other and we want to get married in four weeks!" This answers all the crucial questions. In journalism, we speak of the W-questions: What is the? When? Where? Who? Why? Lead-ins and teasers that are structured like this are called by message. They are often referred to as the lead.

News headlines have their justification. You save the reader the trouble of having to read the whole text for the crucial information. You do not put him on the rack. They are therefore often appropriate for news forms of presentation (report, news item), especially since these follow the scheme of the inverted news pyramid. Even with breaking news, it’s best to reach for the newsy lead-in. Here’s an example: "As announced, Ford has cut production of its Fiesta compact car at its Cologne plant. Since Monday, short-time work has been going on at Ford plants in the cathedral city, as a Ford spokeswoman confirmed on Tuesday" (automobil-produktion.de on 14. October 2014). All W-questions are answered here: Who? Ford. Where? At the Cologne site. What? Production throttled. When? Since Monday. Which source? A Ford spokeswoman. Only the question "Why?" is answered only in the article.

The alluring lead

But you can announce your coming out in other ways, like this: "Mom. I have to tell you something important. Actually, I’ve been planning this for years. You will probably be shocked at first …" Here the recipient of the message is put on the rack. You play with your emotions and curiosity. In journalism, this increases the incentive to read the article. On the Internet, this is noticeable in the click rates, for example, at the very successful Internet portal Heftig.co: "She has very special household helpers. If her husband knew about it, he would be pissed for sure." Or: "He lies relaxed in a hammock. When you see what he does next, you won’t be able to breathe again."

The enticing lead can be divided into five types:

  1. Value proposition. Here it is made clear to the reader: if you read the following article, you will make your life better, more beautiful, more pleasant, more efficient etc. Shape can. Example: "Many doctors do not take care of their insurances due to lack of time. But you should, because you don’t need many policies. A&W author Claus Cory names the 15 most dispensable policies" (the doctor portal auw.en). Of course, the tips are not already revealed to the reader in the opening credits. To find out, he must read the article.
  2. Cliffhanger. It is the king form of curiosity arousing opening credits. Example: "Thunder, lightning, heavy rain – it’s a strange summer in Germany. Day visitors stay away at the Baltic Sea, beach vacationers shiver at the North Sea. Low ‘Otto’ also promises autumnal weather for the coming days. Some coastal vacationers know how to help themselves anyway" (Spiegel online). From this teaser you can easily see the structure of a cliffhanger. It consists of three elements:
    • the attention grabber that catches the reader’s attention ("Thunder, lightning, heavy rain …").
      • the factual location, where the reader learns what the text is about ("At the Baltic Sea …").
      • the ramp. It is the actual cliffhanger. An interesting aspect is hinted at but not clarified ("Some coastal vacationers …" – the reader does not yet learn here how the vacationers know how to help themselves).

    Three rules for the lead

    There are a few rules that apply to all types of opening credits that make it easier for the reader to immediately grasp what the story is about – regardless of whether it is intended to arouse curiosity or briefly inform the reader:

    1. A lead-in must not be cryptic. The reader must in any case be able to recognize the subject of the article. Unsuitable would be therefore something like: "Much hand is put on the skin as a cover between inside and outside. Needle, blade, laser, paint, silicone and money reign supreme. Manipulations of the body have long been more than just ritual practices of tribal cultures and social outsiders. Also in our society many want to optimize their self by means of painful changes at the own body" (wdr.de).
    2. A lead should be sufficiently short. The longer it gets, the greater the risk that the author or reader will lose their breath. 250 to a maximum of 300 characters is a good length.
    3. A lead should be formulated in clear, simple words and short sentences. It should not be overloaded with data, facts and figures.

    If you take these rules into account, you formulate an invitation for your readers in your text. In this sense, a good lead-in is not so much a "coming out" as a hearty "come in!"

    In the third part of the article about journalistic small texts you will learn what characterizes a good caption.

    Cover illustration: Esther Schaarhuls

    The magazine Specialist journalist is a publication of the German Professional Journalists Association (DFJV).

    Markus Reiter

    Markus Reiter is a writing coach for editorial offices and companies. He also advises publishers and editorial teams on the launch and relaunch of newspapers, magazines and online presences. Among other things, he was a reporter and deputy editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest Germany and features editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. Reiter works as a lecturer in the training and continuing education of journalists at several journalism academies, and is an author for the German Journalism College.

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