Sherlock Holmes and Mastery of the Craft of Writing

"Choose. Focus. Become an idiot." – Robert Bruce

Sherlock Holmes was the greatest Consulting Detective in the world.

Though merely a fiction — written over a century ago by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — his methods of logical deduction are without equal.

Holmes’s mastery of his craft brought him to the fog-cloaked London doorsteps of the most powerful people of his time.

Correction: he was so good, those clients came to him.

They ran, desperate, to his Baker Street rooms, begging for his help, willing to pay any amount of money for his services.

What can Sherlock Holmes teach us about the craft of writing?

Everything.

I’ll let you find the wealth of anecdote, advice, and adventure in Conan Doyle’s stories for yourself, but here’s a short list on Holmesian mastery to get you started …

Make a decision

When you watch or listen to an interview with a brilliant and successful writer, something happens deep down in your gut.

Some part of you thinks something like, “Ah yes, listen to her. Her fate was sealed from birth. Some are chosen to create brilliant work, and the rest of us are screwed.”

What you conveniently dismiss from such interviews — if they’re included at all — are the stories of the hours, days, weeks, months, and years of silent practice that the writer has put in.

Somewhere, back there, a decision was made.

On a particular day, at a particular hour, that writer had said, “This is the thing I will dedicate my working life to.”

Sometimes — as in Holmes’s case — there are obvious hints regarding what that “thing” is. Most times, there are none.

The first step on the road to mastery is making a conscious decision about what you will decide to master.

Do not wait for it. Decide.

Focus, focus, focus

Our society tells us from youth that we should become “well-rounded” individuals.

If you want to master your craft, ignore that advice.

Sherlock Holmes focused intensely on a narrow set of criminological skills and subjects that ultimately made him an incomparable detective.

He studied specific disciplines within botany and chemistry — only to the point that they served his needs as a detective.

He learned the science of cryptography in order to swiftly crack the codes of master criminal communication.

He became competent enough in human anatomy to forge the early stages of what would become actual forensic analysis in murder investigations.

He would lie down napping, smoking, and thinking for hours about one minute aspect of a case, not moving until an idea — and sometimes a complete solution — came to him.

Think deeply about the core demands of your craft.

What is needed to advance in mastery of it?

What can be ignored as mere distraction?

Practice brutal focus.

Our fictional detective’s methods are studied even now by very real, working detectives everywhere, because he had the discipline to stay within the arena of his expertise.

Note: For those familiar with Holmes’s methods … No, I am not advocating the use of morphine and/or cocaine.

Become an idiot

Idiocy is the other side of the coin of mastery.

In order to focus your working life on mastering your craft, you’ve got to rule out a lot of the trivia that takes up most people’s time.

Sherlock Holmes could determine what part of the city you’d been recently walking through, from a quick glance at the type of mud on your boot.

He was a strikingly horrible violin player.

Within moments of meeting, he could tell you where you were born, what you’d eaten for lunch, if your brother was an alcoholic, and if you’d served in the war (and where).

He knew nothing about current events or the politics of his day.

He could seemingly predict the future, arriving at correct conclusions that left witnesses believing he was an other-worldly being.

He was utterly oblivious to the basic astronomical patterns of the stars and planets.

Holmes accomplished his amazing ability to see the obvious by … becoming an idiot.

Holmes’s greatness — and ours — is largely defined by what we do not know.

He had one driving professional goal — to engage and best the greatest (and lowest) criminals in the world. He shut out the rest, and he did not care if anyone regarded him as less than “well-rounded.”

All of his considerable mental power was directed at the “elementary” practice of deduction and the few peripheral disciplines that supported it.

Distraction pulls us in all directions

The boredom of repetition drives us to other interests. The pressures of culture make us worry we are missing out on something “important” if we dedicate ourselves to our pursuit of mastery.

Stop.

If you want to master writing, you are giving up running the 800 meters in the Olympic Games.

If you want to master the cello, you are giving up the ability to talk about what’s good on television these days.

If you want to master anything, you must become an idiot about nearly everything else.

Oddly, you must become an idiot in order to become a genius.

Continue to obsess

This path of mastery is not for everyone, but I believe it is one of the great callings and joys this life has to offer.

You’ll never get all the way there … nobody does.

There is only so much time in one day, only so many days in one life.

As our immortal Victorian detective (and the extraordinary man who wrote him into existence) has shown, mastery is one way to truly change the world.

Choose. Focus. Become an idiot.

Image source: Blake Richard Verdoorn via Unsplash.

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[Reminder] Live Webinar–Tips for better brand/agency creative collaboration

We all know the creative process is challenging. Its non-linear nature often causes frustration, delays, unplanned expenses and burned-out creative teams. Join brand expert Lesya Lysyj and Hightail’s Chief Operating Officer Mike Trigg as they explore the hidden costs of a broken creative process…

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How Site Search is Killing Your Conversion Rate (And How to Fix It)

For many websites, an internal site search engine is a must-have. However, oftentimes it’s looked at as more of an afterthought than a true conversion optimization tool – and that in itself could be killing your conversion rate. So what should you know about improving your site search and how do you put these tips into practice? Let’s take a closer look.

Site Searchers are 200%+ More Likely to Convert

According to research from WebLinc, on-site searchers are 216% more likely to convert than regular users. And what’s more, Screen Pages shared the results of 21 of their clients, which showed that (with the exception of one case) the average revenue that came from site search was significantly higher than regular users.

screenpagesUsers who performed an on-site search spent more than regular users

But even with these kinds of numbers pointing to the sheer conversion potential from site search, only 15% of companies have resources dedicated to optimizing it. And only 7% of those companies are actually learning from internal site search data and leveraging it in other areas.

someone-responsible-for-site-search-bar-graph

42% flat out admit that no one is responsible for site search, and another 42% have it added to their list of responsibilities. But let’s be honest, when was the last time you even looked at your site search? For many marketers and business owners – it’s just there.

And if customers aren’t getting the kinds of results they expect from your site search (or worse, getting links to your competitor’s sites), they’ll simply go elsewhere.

That’s why it’s vital to start paying attention to your internal search engine – and making changes that can lead to improved results for everyone. Here’s how to do it:

Targeting the “Spearfishers”

According to Forrester Research, which did an in-depth report on the importance of site search for retail, businesses should focus on “spearfishers” – those users who come to a site searching for a specific product. Forrester Research found that 43% of visitors to a site go immediately to a search boxes, and searchers are 2-3 times more likely to convert.

That means we need to make it push-button simple for them to do a search, right away. You can thank sites like Amazon and Google for making a prominent search box the first and foremost (and sometimes only) thing users see. But we also need robust, relevant results after the search is conducted.

Search with Autocomplete

swarovski-site-searchSwarovski’s site search offers suggestions based on a quick type

Going to the Swarovski.com website without a specific product in mind will instantly lead the user to suggestions. I typed in “blue” and got 10 product suggestions right away. Kohl’s website goes even further to recommend (and show) specific products based on a basic search before the user ever hits enter:

kohls-site-searchKohls.com showing top products based on a basic user search

In suggesting specific products (or even showing top results), you’re guiding the user along the path you want them to take before they even make a conscious decision to continue. Essentially, you’re planting product suggestion seeds and allowing them to branch out from there – putting your user one step closer to a conversion.

Allow Users to Filter the Results

There’s perhaps nothing more frustrating to a user than getting a million search results and having to sift through the clutter. U.K. site DIY.com helps their users filter results search pages by all kinds of sorting options, from price to availability and more – letting them narrow down precisely what they want and when they want it by.

diy-search-pageDIY.com search results pages let users filter results according to their needs

Create Dedicated Landing Pages

Based on the data you’re collecting from your site search engine, you may even want to elevate certain products to get more exposure, or demote others that may not be as popular. For those that are getting the bulk of the hits, consider creating a dedicated landing page for that product to help it stand out from among a sea of similar items.

L.L. Bean has custom landing pages for many of its products which include not just the product details, but the best weather/activity levels, additional features and even the technology behind the item:

ll-bean-landing-pageA custom landing page for a down jacket – with all the details about the product and the technology behind it

Offer Relevant Recommendations

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, products go out of stock or are no longer made. What happens when a user ends up on those pages? With most site searches, planting them firmly on a “product not available” page is a sure path to site abandonment. Instead, take a page out of Amazon’s book by offering related suggestions and recommendations.

Bonus points if you can bundle products in a ‘Frequently Bought Together” option.

Improved Mobile Search

And last, but certainly not least, consider your mobile users as well. Typing on a mobile device can be cumbersome at best, and misspellings often lead users to “Not Found” pages even if the product is available. Test out your site search in a variety of devices for ease of use and fast loading. No mobile user is going to wait forever to see 1,000+ products load up on a results page.

Versatile Site Search Platforms

So now that you know what users truly expect from a high performing site search, how do you implement it? There are plenty of free site search engines available – but here is one area where you definitely don’t want to skimp on features. I took a closer look at some of the more promising site search platforms available and here are a few that are sure to make implementing a better site search engine easier than you might imagine:

Swiftype

swiftype-homepage-2017

Swiftype integrates into many popular platforms including WordPress, Zendesk, Magento and Shopify. With intelligent sorting, filters, spell check and autocomplete, it’s a solid search engine with fast indexing and fantastic relevance. Pricing starts at $299/month with a trial available if you’d like to test the waters.

SearchNode

searchnode-homepage-2017

SearchNode is made for e-commerce sites and integrates with common shopping cart platforms such as OSCommerce, Woo Commerce, OpenCart and many more. It can be up and running in as little as five minutes with a JS code snippet. One of the main benefits that sets SearchNode apart from its competitors is its ability to allow users to conduct a site search in 32 different languages.

SearchSpring

searchspring-homepage-2017

SearchSprint is an enterprise-grade site search platform that combines search and merchandising tools into one package. It also includes common features like auto-complete, product recommendations and even product quizzes/product finders to let users find the right product for their needs by answering a few simple questions.

Conclusion

As you can see, site search is definitely not something you’ll want to overlook when it comes to new ideas to improve your conversion rate. By implementing a few simple steps to give users more control over their results, you’ll likely start to see conversions and revenue soar as customers find precisely what they need quickly, easily and affordably.

Do you use site search extensively on your site? Do your results with it match those of the research? What do you believe makes a good site search engine? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

About the Author: Sherice Jacob helps business owners improve website design and increase conversion rates through compelling copywriting, user-friendly design and smart analytics analysis. Learn more at iElectrify.com and download your free web copy tune-up and conversion checklist today!


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Two Vital Elements that Might Be Missing from Your Content (and Precisely Where to Add Them)

"We all dream of making such an impact on people that they share our ideas far and wide." – Kelly Exeter

It’s taken you more than 10 hours to write a blog post.

You’ve researched the topic to the nth degree. You’ve edited it to within an inch of its life.

Now it’s time to get it out into the world!

You excitedly press Publish, and … even days later … crickets.

Heartbreaking, right?

We all like to think that the amount of effort we invest in creating a piece of content directly correlates to how deeply it resonates with readers. But, experience has repeatedly shown this is not the case.

So, what’s the deciding factor if it’s not effort?

Luck? Timing? Skill?

Yes, the factors above do play a part. But, more often than not, it comes down to these two elements:

  1. If your content doesn’t hook readers in the first few sentences, it doesn’t matter how good the rest of it is, you’ve lost them.
  2. If you don’t clearly communicate your idea, readers may lose interest after your introduction because they don’t have an incentive to keep reading.

So, how do we write both a strong hook and a strong idea? That’s what I’m going to break down for you today.

What’s a hook?

A hook is a narrative technique that operates exactly as it sounds.

It’s information so interesting that it hooks the reader’s attention, and they feel compelled to see what comes next. So, they keep reading.

The hook works in tandem with the headline; the headline delivers the reader to the first lines of an article, and then the hook in those first few lines launches the reader deeper into the piece of content.

What’s the idea?

The dictionary definition of an “idea” is:

“A thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action.”

That neatly sums up what we’re trying to do when we write anything. We want to share a thought, make a suggestion and/or inspire people to take a certain action.

Why is your content’s idea so crucial?

Because your idea drives the payoff the reader will get from continuing to read your article.

That payoff can be:

  • Laughing from your humor
  • Learning new information
  • Taking meaningful action that will help them reach their goals

The idea forms the backbone of your article that leads to a positive outcome for both you and your readers.

We all dream of making such an impact on people that they share our ideas far and wide.

If the people reading your words aren’t inspired to share them with their friends, there’s a ceiling on the number of people you can reach.

Where things can go wrong for your idea

It might be easy to think of an idea for a piece of content, but when we actually sit down to write:

  1. We discover we don’t have as much to say about the idea as we first thought.
  2. We start writing about one idea, but then introduce another halfway through.

In both of these situations, if we publish that content, the reader may be left feeling either bewildered or cheated at the end. Not ideal.

How do you get super clear on your idea?

My favorite technique is to initially write a very literal headline.

Why?

Because it forces you to identify the exact promise you’re making to the reader.

If you can’t identify your promise, then you’re not going to be able to deliver a payoff.

Once you’ve written your literal headline and confirmed you know the exact idea you want to communicate, you’ll use that to:

  • Determine whether you actually have enough material to deliver a payoff for the reader.
  • Edit tightly to ensure you do so.

Here are three examples of literal headlines that sum up the article’s payoff.

When you click through to each of the posts above, you’ll see the actual headline is different from the literal headline I’ve identified.

That’s because your headline needs to hook the reader’s interest without giving away the payoff. If you deliver the payoff in the headline, there’s generally no need for someone to read the whole article.

Struggling to write a literal headline? That means you don’t have a good handle on the idea you’re trying to communicate.

Here are three examples of categories that can help you craft a strong idea … and then we’ll get into writing your hook.

1. Counterintuitive

This is where you take conventional wisdom and turn it upside down.

We all know a balanced diet made up of a variety of foods is ideal, so when someone tells us they ate nothing but potatoes for a year and lost a large amount of weight along the way, that gets our attention.

2. Practical and actionable

Telling people “If you’re organized, your life will be so much easier” is yawn-worthy. Everyone knows that.

Showing them the way you organize your life so that they can learn your tips? That’s far more powerful.

3. Contrarian

When everyone’s telling us not to do a certain thing, having someone tell us we should is incredibly refreshing.

It’s also the kind of thing we tend to share because it’s “ammunition” that justifies our choice to take a path less travelled.

How to write a great hook

One of the most common things I do as an editor is delete the first two paragraphs of articles sent to me.

Introductions are difficult to write, but:

If you’ve written 400+ words of an introduction, there’s a solid chance there’s a decent hook sitting somewhere around the 200-word mark.

Remember, your hook doesn’t need to be the most interesting thing anyone’s ever read; it just needs to be interesting enough to keep the person reading.

Here are five of my favorite hook techniques, with examples:

Hook #1: Ask a question

Humans are drawn to questions for a few reasons. One reason is that we’re inherently competitive.

When someone asks us a question, we’re compelled to first answer it and then find out if our answer is correct. If you don’t have an answer to a question, but someone suggests they do, that’s an even stronger hook.

Here’s an example of Sonia Simone leveraging this:

Headline: The #1 Conversion Killer in Your Copy (and How to Beat It)

Hook: What makes people almost buy? What makes them get most of the way there and then drop out of your shopping cart at the last second?

If you have a website with a shopping cart, I defy you to stop reading the article after those first two lines.

Hook #2: Focus on the reader

This is probably the easiest hook to create. By using the words “You,” “You’re” or “Your” in your introduction, you directly address the reader.

Take this example from Alexandra Franzen:

Headline: This one’s for you

Hook: Your inbox is full of ego-rattling rejection emails, but you’re emailing 10 more literary agents today. … Your podcast has exactly three fans (and two are your parents), but you’re posting a new episode every single week, nonetheless.

The reason this hook works so well is because the reader now feels they’re part of the article’s story. This creates a strong need to know how that story ends.

Hook #3: Add dialogue

Who likes listening in on other people’s conversations?

We all do. We can’t help it. When an article starts with dialogue, we’re quickly hooked because we’re getting all the pleasure of eavesdropping, without the guilt.

Here’s an example from Jerod Morris:

Headline: Why Your Greatest Asset May Be Slowly Eroding (and How You Can Rebuild It)

Hook: “Why are we sending this email to this list again?” Kim asked. I was incredulous. “Umm, because we never sent it a first time,” I thought to myself. Still, before responding, I decided to check. Glad I did.

This hook combines both spoken and inner dialogue. The latter of which is next-level intriguing because it gives the reader access to the writer’s inner thoughts.

Why was Jerod “glad he checked?” We have to know.

Hook #4: Make a big statement

This is where a writer makes a “big call” — usually in both their headline and their opening line. It’s effective because it makes people think, “Really? What have you got to back that up?”

It’s a favorite technique of Penelope Trunk:

Headline: Living up to your potential is BS

Hook: The idea that we somehow have a certain amount of potential that we must live up to is a complete crock.

The reason this hook is so effective is because it captures the attention of people from both sides of the argument.

People who agree with the sentiment want to find out why they’re “right” in thinking so. People who disagree? They read on because they want to rebut.

Big statements are not for the faint-hearted. If you don’t want to engage in robust conversation about the ideas you’ve expressed in a post, stay away from this one.

Hook #5: Tell a story

If you present information in a story format, people immediately pay attention. Using a story as a hook, however, is a pro skill.

You can’t kick off with just any story; it has to be relevant. For an ongoing master class in this technique, simply follow Bernadette Jiwa.

Here’s a recent example from her blog:

Headline: The Unchanging Nature Of Business

Hook: It’s a cool November day in 2014, and a young couple pause on a suburban street to snap a selfie with an iPhone 5C.

Why does the above statement hook you? Because you want to discover the link between the headline and a young couple taking a selfie.

Let’s recap

I’ve covered a bit of ground, so let’s touch on the key points again.

  1. If you don’t hook readers at the beginning of your article, they’re more likely to move on to a different piece of content.
  2. If you can’t summarize the idea of your article in a “literal” headline, then you don’t have a firm grasp of what you’re trying to communicate — and you’ll fail to deliver a payoff for the reader.

Where to go from here?

A simple exercise I urge you to do regularly is: pay attention to the articles that you read all the way to the end and share.

Study them by identifying:

  • The hooks the author used to get you reading.
  • The hooks the author used to keep you reading. (For example, subheadings also function as hooks.)
  • The underlying ideas. (Write literal headlines once you’ve identified those ideas.)
  • What moved you to share those articles?

When you understand the writing techniques that work well on you, you can use them in your own writing to ensure that if you put a lot of time and energy into creating a piece of content, then it will get the attention it deserves.

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