Empathy: A Key to Effective Content

dreamstime_xs_57185412A defining trait of clinical narcissism is a lack of empathy for others. My own experience dealing with self-professed narcissists (yes, some people actually know they’re narcissistic) is their inability to detect when I’ve stopped listening to them. They also can’t recognize when I’m reacting badly to what they’re saying. They just keep talking…and talking…and talking, regardless of my desire to interject, which they can’t perceive either. To bolster the fallacy that they’re in a two-way conversation, they’ll periodically try to prompt a positive response with a question like “Don’t you just love it!?” They project the qualities of an adoring audience on me, whether I’m adoring or not. A similar lack of empathy can also be apparent in marketing content. Marketers will often breathlessly announce all of their features and benefits without relating them to the end-user’s actual experience.

So, what is empathy?

I think the most fundamental definition would be the ability to identify with and share the feelings of another. Based on your world view, you may classify empathy into a particular category, such as spiritual, religious, psychological or even neurophysiological. Regardless of how you frame it, having it sweetens creativity. It strengthens and deepens your connection to your audience, whether you’re in the room with them or not.

Empathy in our daily lives can be dramatized through a hypothetical visit to an emergency room. Let’s say someone has lost a finger through an unfortunate gardening accident. The top microsurgeon in the country says she can reattach it, and describes the procedure in detail. While that may be comforting, it’s not empathetic. Empathy invokes what I refer to as the “I understand” principle. Perhaps the surgeon can’t identify with losing a finger specifically, but she can understand severe pain and/or shocking circumstances. A proven way medical professionals get patients to calm down in extreme situations is to identify with their pain at some level, such as, “I understand you’ve been through a horrible tragedy but I need you to listen to me.” The words I understand have an almost magical effect. I’ve proven through my own empirical testing that they can also quell marital strife and teenage angst, but let’s apply them to marketing.

Recently, I worked on a project in which the team had to repeatedly craft messaging about a particular product or feature to three different audience levels: Executive, Manager and Technician. In order to do this we had to identify to some extent with each group. We focused on what each segment felt about the topic – not their thoughts, but their feelings. Where were their pain points?

We could easily surmise that the Executive wanted to hear about higher level issues such as regulatory compliance; the Manager wanted to hear about the budget and schedule; and the Technician wanted to hear about the nuts-and-bolts. But what pressure were they experiencing from these varied issues? Was the board of directors on the Executive’s case regarding pending fines or lawsuits? Was the Manager’s job on the line about time and money? Were the Technicians worrying about having to learn a whole new set of skills in order to stay employable? Our messaging demonstrated that we understood that each group had its own unique pressures. In other words, we made the problems personal.

For example, the Executive wasn’t just having to adhere to a law, he was being hammered about non-compliance by his board. It’s a pain point that almost anyone in that position can identify with, whether they’re currently experiencing it or not. Thus, we created an emotional hook. Once you’ve identified with someone’s emotions, you’ve opened a channel of receptivity to the rest of your message. Done properly, you’ll have them eating out of your hand.

As a practical matter, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can be a helpful reference tool for determining whether the pain point you’re invoking is deep enough for your audience. The chart lays out humankind’s needs in a pyramid ranging from the most fundamental (breathing, food, water, etc.) to the most superficial (morality, creativity, spontaneity, etc.). The more fundamental nerve you can touch, the better.

Empathy in writing is an expression of understanding. Understanding is one of the most powerfully connecting forces in the universe. Empathy will make your work more authentic. Isaac Newton said,

A man may imagine things that are false, but he can only understand things that are true, for if the things be false, the apprehension of them is not understanding.

Express your understanding.

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