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John Swansburg: Thanks for joining me for this inaugural Slate Plus Headline Chat. Your recent Do It Right video, in which you showed Slate readers a very helpful trick for maximizing the performance of their ziplock bags, is an area where I think we could all stand to improve.
L.V. Anderson: I’m happy you think that.
Swansburg: Keeping leftovers fresh, and the efficient use of refrigerator space, are two of my passions. The headline you put on the post was “The Ziplock Bag Trick That Might Change Your Life.” Now, that’s a bold statement.
Anderson: It is a bold statement. And I went even bolder by claiming, in my very first sentence, “My suggestion that the trick contained in the below video might be life-changing is entirely serious.” So I kind of threw down the headline gauntlet there.
Swansburg: You really did, and I admire that. Were you concerned, in writing that headline, that a certain kind of reader might find it, I don’t know, hyperbolic?
Anderson: Yes, I was. Saying that something “might change your life” is a very BuzzFeed-y or Upworthy-esque headline trope, and, as you pointed out in your roundtable with Allison, David, Chad, and Julia, Slate usually tries to avoid sounding too much like BuzzFeed and Upworthy. But I assumed that many readers would see humor in the idea that a ziplock bag trick would be life-changing. I mean, we’re not talking about a video that will change your mind about gay marriage. We’re talking about ziplock bags.
Swansburg: Sure—an ideal reader sees the headline and says, OK, this trick will in all likelihood change my life at most modestly; Laura is clearly playing with the conventions of headline overstatement here. But what about the reader who doesn’t quite clue into that, who misses your wink? As you pointed out, you doubled down in your opening sentence. You’re saying my life is going to change, and you don’t seem to be kidding—you said it twice!
Anderson: Yes, well, I had a feeling the video might be popular, and I wanted to do whatever I could to get people to watch it. I should back up and say that I’ve used this ziplock bag trick all my life, and for a long time I thought it was something everyone did. But on several occasions, I’ve sucked air out of a ziplock bag in front of a friend and discovered that he or she was mildly amazed by it. The discovery that you could suck air out of a ziplock bag was mildly mind-blowing.
Swansburg: It definitely blew my mind mildly.
Anderson: I assumed many viewers would have a similar reaction. And I guess I wanted to prime people. But it’s worth debating whether a more effective—or at least more honest—method would have been to undersell the video. However, the other obstacle I had to consider while writing the headline was that I didn’t want to give the trick away. Because when people figure out the content of a video ahead of time, they’re less likely to actually watch the video.
Swansburg: So it seems like your logic had two steps, and it’s interesting, because they’re somewhat contradictory steps: On the one hand, you felt that the presence of ziplock in the headline signaled that we didn’t have a solution to world hunger in this video. On the other hand, you truly do believe this is a life-changing trick, so the video backs up the hyperbole, to a degree. Those two things are slightly in opposition, but I see how they work in concert. See what happens when you start unpacking headlines! They contain multitudes.
Anderson: Yes, and I think the contradiction that you mention is a sign of my ambivalence about this and other hyperbolic headlines. I don’t want people to feel deceived by headlines that I write. However, I do want readers to find my headlines amusing and intriguing. Whether they actually do find them amusing and intriguing probably depends on readers’ individual sensibility.
Swansburg: I’m glad you brought up the fact that this was a video piece. You star in a lot of great Slate videos. Are there particular challenges to writing headlines for video pieces? It does seem like the hed has to do twice the work: get me to click over to the page, and then get me to click start on the video. That’s a lot to ask of me!
Anderson: Indeed! I think perhaps part of the challenge is that my videos have evolved from showing a technique specific to an individual recipe—like cooking crêpes or wrapping tamales—to showing a much smaller, more discrete, and more universally applicable technique. (This ziplock technique, for instance, can be used for pretty much any food you put in a ziplock bag.) But the more discrete the technique, the easier it is to spoil, so to speak. In a video about cooking crêpes, I can mention three or four useful things to look for, but in a video about sucking the air out of ziplock bags, there’s pretty much just that one thing.
Swansburg: Right, so you need to tantalize me without giving away all the goods.
You need me thinking to myself, What in the name of all that is holy is she going to do with that bag?!
Anderson: Exactly. And some readers, understandably, find the coyness of the headlines frustrating.
Swansburg: Do you have a favorite headline, either of all time, or of recent memory? Doesn’t need to be from Slate—we here at the Headline Chat admire great headline writing wherever we find it.
Anderson: Ooh! Good question. Well, one headline that comes to mind, and one that is pertinent to this chat, is the Onion’s recent “Christ, Article a Video.” (The piece was about the frustration readers feel when they click what they think is an article, only to discover that it’s a video.) I’m a total sucker for headlines that poke fun at newspaper headline conventions, which is also something they do at the Awl a lot, too. Obviously, that type of satire wouldn’t work at Slate, but I like to admire it from afar.
Swansburg: That’s a great one. We do every now and then try to play with newspaper conventions at Slate, but really, you’re never going to out-Onion the Onion. Laura, thank you so much for joining me for this Headline Chat, for writing that just-the-right-amount-of-hyperbolic headline, and for this indispensable baggie trick. Henceforth I will divide my life into the pre- and post-ziplock-trick eras.