5 Headline Writing Tips From the BBC

How can the BBC make you a better business writer? Let’s take headlines. Unless readers are attracted to your headline, they won’t click on it.

If they don’t click on the headline, they don’t read your blog post. You can see why headlines are important, right? They’re the ‘teaser’ for your article. So, how do you make them more interesting?

Examples of Headline Writing Tips From the BBC

Let’s look at some headlines from the BBC’s news page.

  • Chinese coast evacuated for storm
  • Japan’s Kan in Hiroshima pledge
  • Chavez to resume Cuba treatment
  • Murdoch daughter says no to board
  • Cuba rejects US contractor appeal
  • Bear attack wounded ‘recovering’

A few things to note. It doesn’t state which Chinese coast, the name of the storm, who Kan is, the no is lowercase and not uppercase or in brackets (i.e. NO or ‘no’).

However, the wounded are ‘recovering.’ it’s a direct quote.

How the BBC Write Headlines

First off, this is for the News page. Tone, accuracy, and meaning are priorities.

There are five things to note here.

  1. Headlines are ~33 characters each.
  2. Headlines are 4 – 6 words. None make it to seven.
  3. Headlines use few (if any) adjectives.
  4. Headlines use no periods (full stops).
  5. Headlines avoid ‘sensational’ terms.

Why This Headline Structure Works

For sites with a business, news, technology, or government readership this headline structure works very well.

It helps readers:

  • Scan the page faster.
  • Locate articles they want to read.
  • Ignore posts that don’t interest them.
  • Waste less energy in the process.
  • Come back more often.

It also works for other reasons:

  • It lets content owners put more text on the page.
  • It lets editors organize headlines into logical orders (based on tagging).
  • Search engines can identify and index material more accurately.
  • Search engines ‘appreciate’ fast loading pages, especially Google.

How to Write Headlines like the BBC

Remember, this headline structure has been refined, tested, and optimized for the BBC News page.

You’ll need to modify it for your site.

In other words, it works very well for its readers, satisfies the BBC site guidelines, and works well on mobile devices. There is also a text only version of the page, which we’ll review later.

How you can use this headline structure as a ‘template’ for your site?

  • Reduce headlines to 5-7 words. For example, instead of writing What the BBC Taught Me About Headline Writing, I reduced the word count to 5 Headlines Tips for The BBC.
  • Aim to keep every headline under 25 characters.
  • Remove jargon.
  • Remove industry terms.
  • Avoid complex words.
  • Use simple words in place of larger ones. E.g. Use/utilize. Make/procure. Get/Deliver. Deal/Alliance.

Note: I was going to write this post as The BBC’s 5 Headline Tips. But it’s a bit misleading as the BBC isn’t offering these tips. It’s my observation of how it write them, which is a little different.


Study how other sites write headlines.

Write them out by hand to get a feel for what the editor’s want from their writers. See what patterns emerge. Then experiment with these on your site and see which performs best.

One way to do this is to split test newsletters.

For example, I use email marketing software from Aweber to deliver my newsletters, including this one.

It lets me divide my email subscriber list and send the same email (with the adjustments I want to test) to different lists. When the results come back, I review which performed best and use this for the next campaign.

Over to you.

What’s your best tip for writing headlines? Which mistakes do you see others make? What do you think of the BBC’s headlines?