Death to the present participle, or why “-ing” is not your friend in B2B headlines

B2B copywriters rely too much on present participles in headlines, straplines and titles. Here’s why that’s a bad thing.

Adding "-ing"

Let’s get one thing out of the way before I start lecturing you: I am as guilty of this as anyone.

I’ve even brandished my present participles with pride. Blue-tacked by my desk I have the cover slide of a SlideShare I wrote for our client MATS a couple of years ago:

The Fiona Campbell-Howes near-desk experience: a MATS slideshare (bottom right), and lots of other lovely things.

The Fiona Campbell-Howes near-desk experience: a MATS slideshare (bottom right), and lots of other lovely things.

Up until a few months ago, I rather liked it. (I still love the wonderful artwork that Saul Rosell of Damn Good Graphics made for it; that’s why I keep it by my desk.) But now, every time I catch sight of it, I wince. I can’t look at it straight on. It irks me no end.

Why?

Because of that awful, woolly, say-nothing present participle.

[A quick recap for those who were at school during one of those periods when Labour were in power, and grammar and punctuation were booted off the curriculum for being oppressive tools of the Tory elite. The present participle is the form of the verb (a “doing” word: come on, even Leon Trotsky knew that) that indicates the action is happening in the present. I am writing this. You are reading this. The Bolsheviks are storming the Winter Palace.]

You can generally tell a present participle by the “-ing” on the end.

Don’t go thinking that all words with “-ing” on the end are present participles, though. Some of them are gerunds*. Some might even be gerundives. But as Slate’s Michael Kinsley pointed out in one of my favourite articles of all time, no one really knows what those are – not even Michael Gove – so let’s pretend they aren’t real things.

Loving it (a bit too much)

We B2B copywriters like our present participles. We like to use them in all sorts of places, like blog headlines, company straplines, and the titles of SlideShare presentations. We think they’re useful little words, good for explaining what the blog or company or SlideShare is all about. With a present participle, we can often use one word where otherwise we’d have had to use more. We feel we’re being succinct, economical – punchy, even.

Reader, we are not.

What we are being is woolly, opaque, and rubbish.

Take this headline, for example:

Example of present participle use with the headline Accelerating Next

Let’s not point fingers at whose copy this is: the truth is, we’ve all come up with headlines / titles / straplines like this at one time or another. But let’s think about why it doesn’t work.

  1. The meaning is unclear. What does “accelerating next” mean? I’m sure the writer felt this was a clever way of implying that this brand gets you to the future faster. But if that’s what the brand does, what’s wrong with “Get to the future faster”? That’s pretty clear, and you don’t have to stop to think about what the words mean. Granted, it isn’t particularly “clever”. But which is better: being clever, or being clear? YOU DECIDE.
  2. There’s no subject. We have no idea who or what is doing the accelerating. Is it us, the reader? Is it the brand whose copy we’re reading? Is “next” (whatever that is) somehow accelerating itself? Without a subject, the idea of “accelerating next” just hangs there, with no sense of purpose or clarity or ownership. And that means it feels safe to ignore it.
  3. It doesn’t sound urgent. At its most fundamental level, the art of B2B copywriting is the art of convincing the reader to take action. That action might be anything – from reading the next paragraph, to forwarding an article to the CFO, to signing up for a free trial, to actually buying something. But our basic job is to spur someone to do something. That means we have to instil a sense of urgency, of you-must-do-this-now-it’s-terribly-important.


The trouble with the present participle is that it seems vague and non-urgent. “Accelerating next” could be happening at any time. It sounds like it might have been going on for a while, and will probably still be happening next week. It doesn’t feel like there’s any great benefit in paying attention to it right now, or any great risk in doing nothing. And so (being a tired working parent with chronic information overload) I decide to ignore it and go on my way. Not a great result, eh, copywriters?

But… what can I use instead?

If you take away our cherished present participles, what can we use instead? Well, here are a couple of ideas:

For straplines: Instead of trying to boil down the brand’s essence into a meaningless phrase like “connecting futures”, try actually spelling out what the brand does for its customers:

Mailchimp: not a present participle in sight.

Mailchimp: not a present participle in sight.

It’s six words rather than two, but this Mailchimp value proposition could not be clearer. More is more, in this case.

For blog / white paper titles: Title your blog or white paper something vague like “Transforming the C-Suite” and you might get a few clicks – but many will feel there’s nothing specific or urgent enough there to warrant a look. A more specific title, like “Finance Meltdown: Why the Role of CFO Will Be Gone in Five Years”, gives much more of a flavour of what the piece is about, makes it specific to a particular audience, and gives a sense of risk and urgency.

(Of course, you then have to actually write a piece that delivers on the promise of the title, otherwise you’re just producing clickbait.)

And the MATS SlideShare that I lovingly keep by my desk, despite its woolly title? If I were writing it again now, I wouldn’t call it “Beating the Disruptors at Their Own Game”. I might call it something like “It’s Not Just for Startups: How Big Enterprises Can Be Disruptors Too”. (Yes, I am bad at titles. But at least this one is clear about what it’s talking about and who it’s for.)

So here’s my advice: next time you’re tempted to use a present participle in your title, resist. Think of a clearer, more purposeful, and more specific way of wording it. And watch your engagement stats tick up.

* I have a terrible feeling that all the examples I’ve used in this blog are actually gerunds, rather than present participles. (I’m sure my friend and grammar aficionado Steve Walker will soon be along to put me right.)


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Comments

  • Steve Walker

    Yup. Gerund 🙂

    If the -ing word is being used as part of a verb’s construction (“I am lecturing”) or as an adjective (“a hectoring busybody”) then it is a participle; if as a noun, such as the subject of a sentence (“bullshitting is regrettably common”), then it’s a gerund. A good explanation can be found at https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/66/whats-the-difference-between-a-gerund-and-a-participle.

    I take slight issue with the prescriptive and absolutist scope of your thesis, by the way. “Accelerating Next” is great example of a headline that shouldn’t ever have seen the light of day, but that’s because it’s vapid, pretentious twaddle indicating a lack of clarity of thought on the part of the writer, not because it has a gerund in it 🙂

    • Fiona Campbell-Howes

      Thanks, Steve, and for the link to the explanation. I’m still not sure, as the use I’m describing seems to me to behave like a transitive verb. In “Accelerating Next”, “Next” is the object and “Accelerating” seems to be some form of verb that’s doing something to that object. If it was “The Accelerating of Next”, I’d agree it was a noun-like form. But what do I know? Also, sorry to pick on you for this!

      And I agree, a blanket ban on gerundiciples (as I shall call them, per the Slate article) is probably extreme, but that kind of title does tend to come across as woolly and unclear. I think we should always aim to use titles that are as clear and assertive as possible.

    • Fiona Campbell-Howes

      Oh OK, *now* I’ve read the Wikipedia article and I see a gerund can have a direct object, and I concede 🙂

  • Once again Radix actually wants to say something. I approve 😀

  • SobbING that beatING has you so upset – I always liked that title. But thanks for the tip. I just rewrote an article headline and removed all the INGs. Liked it better after that. N

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