The Art of Writing With Empathy

You’re no doubt familiar with the old proverb, “Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”  It was top of mind this week as I dug deeper into some intriguing articles about the value of writing with empathy.

My favorite, “Empathy is the Secret to Writing that Sells, According to Science,” leverages neuroscience – specifically, a study of macaque monkeys done in the 80’s – to show how mission-driven organizations can spur audiences to action.  As the article notes, that famous study – which for the first time identified similar neurons in monkey and human brains – suggested that “empathy, as an emotional primer, sometimes puts our brains in the right frame of mind to be sold to.”

At first blush, the notion of writing with empathy for your audience may sound kind of obvious. As the parents and significant others among us know probably all too well – to persuade someone to do what you really want them to do, you’re usually more successful when you connect through the heart.

Obvious, maybe. But not always easy to remember. And especially difficult when you’re distracted, or pressed for time and resources – as so many organizations are these days. In a related Guardian Voluntary Sector Network post, UK copywriter Paul Chuter rather bluntly sums up the importance of spurring empathy in your audience: Charities do poorly when they sit down and just think about what they’ve got to say.”  (Sounds a lot like the C.Fox mantra of“Leading with the Why,” doesn’t it?)

So how can you make empathic writing a habit?  Here are three tips to live by:

  1. Make sure your purpose is clear.  No matter what the communication – whether it be a direct appeal letter, a petition, or a campaign email – expect the first question that pops into your reader’s head to be: What are you expecting me to do about it? If you don’t state clearly and succinctly how your reader can help you solve the problem you’re seeking support to solve, you’ve just wasted a critical opportunity – not to mention a ton of staff time and postage.
  2. Connect the dots for your audience. Copywriting guru Chuter explains (again, in delightfully blunt fashion): “You need to draw a connection between the action and the outcome… [F]or example the phrase ‘Can you help us to help the starving refugees?’ disconnects the action of donating with those on the receiving end – the refugees – by putting the charity in the middle. Instead you should simply say something like: ‘Can you feed starving refugees?’ because it is [your audience’s] action – giving money – which is enabling that to happen.
  3. Avoid unnecessary adjectives. I absolutely love this tip – which I recently found in anold Lifehacker post. Why? Because it’s both unexpected and completely logical:

[Adjectives] are, in fact, one of the worst elements of speech and even make a listener or reader lose trust. Writer Kim Perez explains: ‘Using single words to describe actions and objects quickly brings them to mind. When someone “stabs” a straw into their drink we see it, but “pokes swiftly” is not so clear. When a person “meanders” it is more accurate than “walking slowly.” A man whose foot is described as a “hoof” is much more vivid that having “gnarled toes and sole.”’ …. [Perez] goes on to explain that “too much unnecessary text induces skipping”, which shows how detrimental adjectives can be. What we easily forget on a very high level is that using less words builds trust. So any words that don’t convey meaning can erode our readers’ and listeners’ interest.”

Achieving empathy in your writing starts by being genuinely in touch with the person on the other end of your intended email, or the people who you hope will read your annual appeal letter. Making sure your ask is clear, your desired outcomes are understood and your words are simple will go a long way in getting those same audiences to move your mission forward.

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