When a copy editor applies a real or virtual red pencil to a piece of journalistic prose, he or she is likely to use weird spellings: hed for head (headline), dek for deck (subhead), lede for lead (first paragraph). The idea is that these intentional misspellings will help distinguish an editor’s commentary from a writer’s prose.
Whether this is a useful convention or just an antiquated habit I really can’t say. But the principle of heads, decks, and leads matters more than ever, and not just in journalism. We’re all publishers now in one way or another. None of us can predict the contexts in which what we publish will be found. But if we’re careful about writing heads, decks, and leads, we’ll improve the odds that it will be found.
You can apply this principle to any package of information: an email message, a blog post, an event listing. In an email message the head is clearly the Subject: line; in a blog posting it’s the title. What about the deck? Here’s where creative analogies come into play. In these cases, only the head will be seen when readers scan their inboxes or RSS feeds. So you might want to collapse the idea of head and deck into a single robust head. As for the lead, well, it’s always best to begin an email message or a blog post with a compelling first paragraph.
Event listings are trickier. Here are some possible mappings for two examples from Facebook:
Here the best analog for head (or title, or subject) is the What are you planning? field. A reasonable analog for deck combines the When? and Where? fields. And the More info? field maps neatly to the lead.
Following the same pattern, we can map the head and the deck and omit the lead. Now, compare the two mappings. Example 2 lacks some critical information. And that missing information makes it less discoverable than Example 1. Can you spot what’s missing? Here’s a hint: It’s not the absence of the lead. Another hint: It’s not even the absence of a full street address including the city and state. The critical difference is that Example 1 includes the city and state in the head and Example 2 doesn’t.
I only realized this when I added Facebook to the set of elmcity event sources. The elmcity service uses the Facebook graph API to search for events using search terms like “Keene, NH” or “Santa Rosa, CA.” If you run that search for Keene you’ll see that Example 1 shows up but Example 2 is missing in action.
Here’s a version that would have worked for the Cold River Ranters:
But here’s a version that wouldn’t have worked:
It seems that when you use Facebook’s API to search for events, it only looks for your phrase in the heads. So, for example, if you searched Facebook events for Starving Artist the results would include:
"name": "Starving Artist Ent. Presents: This Is Hip Hop",
"location": "My House Bar & Lounge",
"name": "Starving Artist Project",
"location": "Mary's Attic Chicago",
"name": "World History @ Starving Artist (Keene NH)",
"location": "The Starving Artist",
The last of these is the same event that’s included in a search for Keene, NH. By writing a head that includes the location, the Starving Artist Collective succeeded in making its event discoverable by Keene’s event hub. By failing to include the location, the Cold River Ranters missed out on that opportunity. (So did Mary’s Attic: A hub tuned to Facebook’s virtual channel for Chicago events would have missed that one.)
I’m sure that neither the Starving Artist Collective nor the Cold River Ranters knows anything about the workings of the Facebook search API. But the Starving Artist Collective has intuited an crucial principle: Headlines matter. Always pack as much distinguishing data into them as available space allows. Heads will always be visible to a scan or a search; decks and leads are active in far fewer contexts. If your headline doesn’t create access to those supporting contexts, it will be much harder for people to reach them serendipitously.
In this week’s companion article I show how the elmcity service uses the Facebook API. If you’re not a developer you won’t care about that. But everybody should care about the principle of heads, decks, and leads. We’re all publishers. We publish in order to be found, to be read, to connect, to have influence. When we’re careful about how we package and layer our information, we become more effective publishers.
- Developing intuitions about data
- The laws of information chemistry
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