3 powerful reasons for using odd numbered lists in your blog post titles

Ever wondered why your eye gets attracted to lists? Especially articles promising an odd number of insights?

Today I’ll share the formula for powerful headlines and let you in on the reasons why they work, namely:

  • The power of laziness
  • The power of odd numbers
  • The power of adjectives

It seems psychologists have known why for a long time, and almost two decades of mainstream web content has shown which headline formulas float to the top.

At the most fundamental level, it seems humans are attracted to articles and blogs that promise a short list of tips or insights when the topic being promoted highlights a difference between the reader’s current state of knowledge and they desired state.

This is one of the findings in George Loewenstein’s, The Psychology Of Curiosity: A Review And Reinterpretation.

This paper makes a strong case that our success in communicating with our target markets, depends on how good we are at honing in on, and inflaming curiosity within, readers.

Couple this finding with the power of odd numbers, and you are doing everything right for unleashing an avalanche of eyeballs upon your website.

The power of laziness

Throughout human history, we have always strived for better, more efficient ways of doing things.

From prehistoric ‘man’ taming fire and developing tools, to modern efforts in pushing the boundaries of scientific endeavour, the quest for better, easier, more powerful ways of doing things seems to be unquenchable.

Likewise, when we are on the prowl for information, stumbling across an article that promises a list to wrap up all the main points succinctly, is guaranteed out attention.

The Psychology Of Curiosity says the engine at work here is laziness.

When faced with the prospect of searching through millions of Google results or just clicking through to see the 5 surefire ways of boosting sales today, you are most likely to take a look at this measured dose of facts.

In this case, laziness is good. It is a promise of efficiency.

And if you are able to pull off a succinct list like that, it is a stunning showcase of your expertise.

The power of adjectives

It is known in journalistic and writing circles that numbers on their own in headlines, lack the power of words.

One trick most writers use is to couple numbers with adjectives (describing words).

Hence, this article is not just ‘3 reasons for using odd numbers in your blog post titles‘ but ‘3 POWERFUL reasons for using odd numbers in your blog post titles‘.

While on this topic, you will see I have used the numeral ‘3’ in my headline. That is because it is much faster for our brains to process numbers rather than words, and it also signals directly to the reader that there is a quantity of information coming, rather than just a bank of prose.

NOTE: Many journalists follow the AP Style Guide, which suggests you write out numbers as words when they are less than 10. You also don’t start sentences with numerals; spell numbers out in full – headlines are the exception. Likewise, when two numbers are being used together, use one written in full and the other as a numeral, eg, thirteen 15-year-olds.

The power of odd numbers

Finally, the question of odd numbers.

Instruction specialist, Abreena Tompkins, recently conducted meta analysis on more than 300 articles about online learning and concluded that grouping information in parcels of three or five can help people absorb information better.

She found that research suggests we struggle to process more than 9 items in a row.

She also found that the simple act of breaking up larger chunks of information into odd-numbered batches, helped the brain process the information in manageable groups.

In marketing communication, it is also believed that odd numbers of facts suggest the content of the list has been dictated by the nuggets of information available, making in more authentic, than even numbered lists.

This is especially relevant to ‘top 10’ lists because most of us believe something has been added to flesh out the list, or trimmed to keep it, within the round number.

The odd number list headline formula

So, where does this leave us with our blog writing?

Firstly, I would be nervous about blindly adhering to this format of blog headine, week in, week out, especially if  your blog has regular subscribers.

As power as this approach is, it can come across as ‘tricky’ or ‘second hand car salesperson-like’ if abused.

But be that as it may, I have distilled these elements into a headline generator for you, so you can at least give this approach a try; it might even help clarify some thoughts and topics for you.

Here is the blog headline formula:

(odd number) (adjective) (mistakes/tips/insights/shortcuts) for (achieving/avoiding) (desired outcome/disaster)

And here are some ridiculous examples using a random word generator:

  • 3 backhanded compliments for building friendships
  • 5 splashier techniques for snapping frozen steaks
  • 7 shifty behaviours for leaving embarrassing situations

Good luck with your headline crunching.


Image:  work-todo-list-july-6 by Purple Slog via Flickr. CC BY 2.0