Communicating What Matters

How empathetic thinking can improve your messaging

#Empathy has 446,343 followers on LinkedIn. For context, that’s as if the entire population of Minneapolis was watching their inbox, waiting to engage in professional conversations about the topic. We like to talk about empathy, especially in the communications arena, where marketing professionals, writers, and business leaders understand the value of a message that resonates with its intended audience.

However, talking about empathy and practicing empathy are two different things. Let’s walk through various definitions of empathy, how empathetic thinking improves your messaging, and practical ways to build empathy.

Empathy has multiple meanings

Empathy is important. But what exactly is it? Turns out that people don’t agree on what empathy means. Psychologist C. Daniel Batson has identified eight different types of empathy. These range from knowing how someone feels (cognitive empathy) to mimicking observed behavior (facial empathy) to imagining how someone feels (psychological empathy).

Sarah Konrath gives a good example of two perspectives on empathy in her article “What’s the Matter with Empathy?” She contrasts comments from former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Clinton phrased empathy as feeling another’s pain, whereas Bush said it was imagining ourselves in another’s circumstances. Even public figures (or their speechwriters) can’t agree on what empathy means.

If we can’t agree on the meaning of empathy, how can we talk about it productively?  

One answer is to base our definition of empathy on what we wish to accomplish. Let’s apply this to relating with prospective customers or clients. Internalizing their emotions may not be as helpful as simply taking their perspective. But sometimes, a personal experience of the same pain a customer feels can drive us to create uniquely compelling content.

Good communication begins with empathy

Writing without understanding your audience is like tossing a paper airplane in the sky on a windy day. You can hope it will get to your friend, but it will likely only land on your face. Taking time to understand something about your friend, such as where they live, will give you a much better chance of getting your message to them.

Empathy should be the cornerstone of our communication. Ann Handley writes in her book Everybody Writes that “empathy for the customer experience should be at the root of all your content (p.47).” She explains that a writer’s empathy helps communicate how a product or service improves our audience’s lives. And audiences value (and act on) useful content.

If your webpage, article, or podcast is smart and funny, congrats. But it won’t compel your target audience if it doesn’t also solve a problem they are experiencing or connect with them in another way.

Immersive experiences build empathy  

Psychologists have found that the biggest barrier to practicing empathy is that we think it is hard. And humans subconsciously avoid doing hard tasks. Once we can drop the misconception that empathy is difficult, we’re more likely to at least try. The first (and most important) step to practicing empathy is deciding you can become more empathetic.   

Empathy is more than simply imagining what motivates others or makes them cringe. We have too many preconceptions for an unbiased perspective. The best way to cultivate empathy is through repeated conversations and interactions with your prospective audience. Live life in their tennis shoes, work boots, wing tips, heels, slippers or crocs.

But spending quality time with your target audience can be difficult for many reasons—physical location, budget, pandemics, deadlines, schedules, and more. Another way to work towards empathy is by having other immersive experiences. Join your audience’s online forums and discover which informational “watering holes” they gather around. What magazines or newsletters do they follow? Who is a leading voice in their industry?

The storytelling used in media can help us build empathy. Watching documentaries or YouTube videos and reading fiction helps us understand another person’s perspective more deeply. Unlike cold hard facts, these immersive content outlets naturally bring us on another person’s journey.

Here’s a personal example. I recently worked on an audience analysis for a client. While waiting to get traction on interview requests, I stumbled on a “day in the life” video on YouTube. The woman who posted the video walked viewers through her workplace while chatting casually about the joys and frustrations of her work. I could have read an article with the same information, but hearing and seeing it (even virtually) helped me empathize with her.

I did eventually get an interview for the client, by the way, but watching the YouTube video was an accessible introduction to learning what inspired my client’s target audience.

Understanding your audience is critical to successful messaging. Empathy can get you there. And the hardest part? Just getting started.

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