Are The 9 Days of Christmas for Real?

XmasOK, there are 12, but bear with me.

I have grown weary of blog post titles with numbers in. There are so many appear now every day that if, for instance, you google 5 Social Media you will find literally hundreds of posts with titles that include it, for instance, “5 B2B Social Media Marketing Benefits.” That particular one is the 496th result—seriously. Presuming roughly the same numbers of returns for 6, 7 etc., you quickly get to thousands. Just for Social Media.

I had hoped this was a fad that would pass. However, since it shows no signs of doing so, I thought I had better find out why. Luckily, there are (of course) lots of posts with titles like “4 Reasons to Put Numbers in Your Titles.” Not so luckily, these are lists of opinions, devoid of facts. Some of those reasons:

  1. “Numbers are brain porn.”
  2. “Some people might associate some numbers as their lucky numbers.”
  3. “It attracts the reader’s attention since they are so used to seeing words.”
  4. “There is good historical precedent for this practice; the 10 Commandments is one example.”

From the profane therefore, to the sacred. I am not making these up, but the authors clearly are. There are no data or examples to support any of these assertions (or any of the others). Unless you count the 10 Commandments as a legitimate example. And then you have to believe that the threat of eternal damnation was insufficiently compelling for the Israelites that the Creator threw in a cheap rhetorical device to make sure he got their attention. Doesn’t seem likely to me.

Digging a bit deeper, I find that headline writers and publishers have known for decades that numbers in headlines work, because they get results. Someone has devised a “Law of Specificity” that states that people are more likely to believe information which is specific (e.g. 5 steps…) than information which is general (e.g. Some Advice…). Publishers have also observed that odd numbers work better in headlines than even ones.

So even if we don’t know why these work (the unsubstantiated reasons are aka guesses), at least we know they do. Numbers in headlines aren’t therefore going to go away, any more than retailers are going to stop pricing everything with a 9 for each of the last two significant digits. No matter how saturated the market apparently is with these devices, they are gifts that keep on giving; which is a comforting thought at this time of year.

Hence the 9 Days of Christmas in the title.

But here’s the irony. If the number in the headline conveys authenticity by being specific, how does the reader feel when they get to a post and it’s just a list of opinions? If there are no specifics to support the assertions, haven’t they been taken there under false pretences? And might they not view the author as a bit of a charlatan?

Back to the 12 Days of Christmas. According to a book published in 1991, the famous song about the 12 Days was created as a coded reference to important articles of Christian faith. For instance, Two Turtle Doves are the Old & New Testaments, Four Calling Birds are The Four Gospels and Ten Lords A-Leaping are—of course—the 10 Commandments.

But as neat and appealing as this story might be, the author omitted to underpin her claims with any evidence. So as snopes.com explains here, they must be regarded as false.

We know from innumerable (OK, 499) conversations with business executives over the past couple of decades (that is, 22 years) that they are irritated by unsubstantiated assertions. Real examples, or at least supporting data, are a minimum requirement for those claims to be taken seriously.

So by all means use numbers in your titles. I have for this article, I did yesterday in a longer piece here, and I will likely use them a lot more in future. But please, underpin that finite number of contentions with evidence. Your readers will love you for it.

And finally, for light holiday entertainment, the original Straight No Chaser a cappella version of 12 Days of Christmas is here.

Enjoy and Happy Holidays! 

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