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Who Had Meth in their Underwear? The Crucial Need for Clarity in Communications

by Howard Fencl, Hennes Communications

Headlines tell your story. Well, good headlines do. Sometimes, because of the arcane vagaries of the English language, a headline can convey eye-opening meanings you never intended. There’s a classic example in which this innocent sentiment


becomes something quite different, and something quite sinister, when the comma is omitted:


An even more perplexing headline jumped out at me first thing this morning as I scrolled, bleary-eyed,  through headlines in our local daily:


I was jolted awake. Who was in their underwear, the man, or police? And who had the meth? This headline immediately suggests three radically different scenarios:

  1. Police, who for some embarrassing reason were in nothing but their underwear, arrested a man with meth.
  2. Police, who were wearing nothing but tighty-whities inexplicably packed with meth, arrested a man.
  3. Police arrested a man who had meth and who also happened to be in his underwear.

We are all exposed to a barrage of headlines every day. We decide whether or not to click on stories by scanning through headlines. Headlines are also disguised as subject lines in our emails and as posts on Twitter and other social platforms. The crazier or more salacious, the more likely we are to click and view.

Headlines are meant to grab our attention. That’s their only job: Convince you to read on.

With the very next email or post you write, think of your subject line as a headline. We are much more likely to immediately click open an email with a punchy, titillating subject line than an email thread bounced 50 times with the infernal subject line “RE:RE:RE:RE:RE:Today’s meeting.” The same goes for a Twitter post. If it’s boring, it’s ignored. You’ve wasted your time and your organization’s money.

Punch up the language, and you’re rewarded with an immediate and tangible payoff: Clicks on your post, and higher email open rates. But how do you punch it up?

  • Use present tense verbs. Admittedly, “Police Arrest Man With Meth in Underwear” ticks this box. Even if an event happened in the past, using present tense can convey immediacy and excitement.
  • Use active voice. The concept of active and passive voice trips many of us up. Active voice puts the protagonist performing the action first. Again, “Police Arrest Man With Meth in Underwear” ticks this box because it’s the police doing the arresting. How would this headline look in passive voice? Something like “Man With Meth in Underwear Arrested by Police.” Yes, this construction makes clear who had the meth and who was in their underwear, but it arguably places more emphasis on the meth head than the law-enforcing action of police.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread. First and foremost, your headline must be true, and it must be factually correct. Always proof your headlines to catch any typos, missing words, unnecessary word or incorrect punctuation. Then have someone else proof it. You’ll likely get more clicks.

And perhaps give your grandma some peace of mind, too.

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