head does the feeling

It was one of the top 32 copywriters in the world, John Bevins, who highlighted the Holy Grail of copywriting in his cover quote of my book, Copywriting in Action. “It’s there, in six words” he says, “in this job – – – – – – – is all. Search out that sentence, dear reader” he advises, “and think deeply about it because it is what makes copywriters copywriters.”

Let me save you some time here and tell you John is referring to that holiest of holy grails, “empathy”. Now I’d be the first to admit that it takes a bit of work, even courage, to arouse empathy. It’s not taught at school. The psychological sciences have ignored it until now. And the neuroscientists have only recently began to inquire about it as a cerebral faculty. So if you’ve ever wondered why relationships don’t work, genuine connections are not being made or people piss you off too easily, you can now be sure that empathy, or the lack of it, has a lot to do with it. I can speak from personal experience as someone who was at the low end of the empathy spectrum and had a history of unenduring or superficial relationships. For me it took the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism to understand and reconfigure my mindset to a more “other regarding” way of thinking. Buddhists have been working on this issue for over 2500 years, so they have pretty much got it down to a science. But we now have access to neuro-imaging study results that explain how empathy works and how we can develop it. Here’s a brief overview:

Where there’s zero degrees of empathy, neuro-imaging reveals underactivity in the orbital frontal cortex and in the temporal cortex, both parts of the empathy circuit. Neuro-imaging also shows that there is decreased binding of neurotransmitters to one of the serotonin receptors (these modulate both excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmissions). That’s the limit of my knowledge on the subject, but the key point is that the zero degrees of empathy arises from abnormalities in the empathy circuit of the brain. Now thanks to our brain’s plasticity, this is not an irreversible condition. We can arouse empathy by simply focusing all our attention on the other. That can be as basic as listening to the other without rehearsing in your head what your going to say back. In fact, I have found this practice very useful in developing a greater degree of empathy. Try it. See how long you can stay listening without an interruption from your ego. You’ll be amazed at what you pick up from the other person that you might otherwise have missed. Better still, the other person will be amazed at how truly they have been “heard” by you. And that is the bottom line, being heard. Not like a strategy (we can all sniff that one out quickly enough) but as a natural and sincere occurrence in the act of interrelating.

This is all the more important when you practice “professional communications”. Let’s face it, it’s an embarrassing title when the majority of us don’t have a clue about empathy! Worse still when that majority make it an uphill battle for the John Bevins’ of this world. As a working freelance art director & writer, my inclusive approach with the secret ingredient of empathy, has always created a highly satisfying and constructive collaboration for all stakeholders as well as myself. It only takes one person to make the whole show a wonderful experience and success. Uphill battles turn into molehill skirmishes. “Empathy is like a universal solvent”, explains Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge, “Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is effective as a way of anticipating and resolving interpersonal problems, whether this is a marital conflict, an international conflict, a problem at work, difficulties in a friendship, political deadlocks, a family dispute, or a problem with the neighbour”.

In short, empathy is the most essential faculty of human communications.

Empathy begins by turning your mind from self regarding to other regarding. Your writing will become less like messaging and more like a genuine dialogue. You will begin to “hear’ your target audience respond to your sentences, and give you inklings of how to compose them more clearly and accurately. You will also begin to experience the creative process as a journey of connection, engagement and earning the reward of being heard (i.e. your communication piece actually gets read from start to finish). All you have to do is a simple mindset shift and your seratonin receptors will automatically do the rest. In my classes I often make the correlation between the creative arts and the behavioral sciences. What you are actually doing as you write to your invisible (but real) audience is the same as how you would relate to them in person. The first step is making that connection. And the best quality connection is made from empathy. The second step is the building of trust. And the best quality trust is made from stainless steel listening. In writing, that is expressed in a way that acknowledges or respects your reader’s hopes, fears and desires. Only then do you earn the permission to tell your story and ask them to do something about it.

All these steps can be done in one sentence or one hundred. That’s where your craftsmanship comes in. Speaking from experience, as long as your mind is other regarding, you will be guided well.

References:
The Copy Book: How some of the best copywriters in the world write their advertising, DA&D
Empathy makes the world go round; Simon Baron-cohen; The Age, June 26, 2011
Simon Baron-Cohen; Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty, published by Penguin Australia.

19 Comments

  1. Karl says:

    I feel like writing empathetically will be a subtle shift of sorts, I look forward to testing it out

  2. Helen says:

    A wonderfully practical approach to empathy. I like the way it’s explained as a simple mindset rather than an innate trait. That makes it accessible for everyone. In terms of its application one of my favorite ads was a Bose ad where I felt like they were so in my world it was like the problems they were solving were specific to me.

  3. Melanie Roe says:

    Really like this article and pleased I read it at the beginning of my copywriting journey… Empathy is something which has eluded me – I think because I never considered a priority so never really thought about it. In the last year I’ve been reading a lot on mindfulness and meditation (similar to your Tibetan Buddhism study Nicolas) and I’ve already noticed clear changes in my day to day life. Good to know there are practical benefits, as well as just being nicer to be around!

  4. Euphemia Russell says:

    This is a great article! I get a kick out of connection, so when I write, I love the process of imagining the answer and the unfolding conversation. Thank you for reminding me to continuously ground my copywriting practice in empathy!

  5. Simon Carr says:

    I like this post highlighting the link between empathy and listening, so often we listen to react rather than listening to hear and understand. I couldn’t help but think of the correlation to “being present in the moment” and the wealth of detail that lie within.

  6. Elise O says:

    Some critical advice – for copywriting and in life! I find that I admire those with the ability to listen and yet I’ve failed to master it myself. Empathy really is all.

  7. Alex D says:

    Consciously putting thought and energy into your personal relationship with empathy is very satisfying, and in perfect world we would all be encouraged to do this from a young age.

  8. taryn says:

    I decided not to become a nurse because I didn’t think empathy was my strong point! Looks like copywriting might be out as well. 🙂
    Although it makes complete sense that your writing won’t have any meaning or impact without an understanding of, and empathy towards, the audience.

  9. Rebecca L says:

    I think compassion goes hand-in-hand with empathy…maybe the two could be used interchangeably. And the precursor to compassion is listening – withholding judgement and really listening to what the other person or people have to say. Moving past ego-driven self-righteousness. In practice I think this can be quite challenging (that ego voice can be pretty loud sometimes!). As i am just starting on this copywriting journey, I’m sure I will have numerous forgetful moments in which my ego to sneaks through with ‘clever’, ‘addsy’ copy….and how I will have to consciously re-shift my focus back to the target audience and their needs and perspectives. I think it will be a fascinating process!

  10. Jessie L says:

    Imagine if empathy was taught at school! Great article.

  11. Richard C says:

    ‘Turning your mind from self regarding to other regarding’. I think this is an important statement. We might think we have empathy, but get caught up in other distractions that are self regarding, work pressures, life, etc. It’s easy to reflect this in our writing. Thanks for this one.

  12. M. Soan says:

    An insightful yet useful and simple piece of advice. I like your connection between the creative arts and the behavioral sciences, namely, because the creative arts embody visceral rather than intellectual expression. Coming from a place of emotion to express and connect with others therefore makes more sense than simply telling it how it is or needs to be. However, I never took empathy to be as uncomplicated as switching the mindset to one of ‘other regarding’. I try to practice this mantra in my day to day interactions but find it is easier said then done when writing!

  13. Colette Easdown says:

    Are psychographics the answer to developing our challenge to our readers? Is understanding their motivations allowing us to answer their need? In reading I believe the use of psychographics allows us to tap into our audiences inner requirements, sending a stronger, more convincing message.

  14. Colette Easdown says:

    Changing for messages to genuine dialogue is where I need to be. Can the effective use of empathy change me just talking at my audience to an open dialogue?

  15. Julie Wood says:

    A recurrent theme noted in a number of these blogs. I like the idea that empathy is associated with honesty, in turn bringing the reader on the journey with you. Through writing in an empathetic style, you are gaining their trust and communicating in a language they will understand and engage with.

  16. Miles B says:

    This is an extremely important insight. But how do we achieve this empathy? I think that this point is closely related to the post on knowing the hopes, fears, and desires of our audience. This is a matter of research, taking the time to consider who will read what we are writing, and putting ourselves in the place of our readers. I think that developing empathy is something that takes time, and that grows with the time taken – and it is time that is well worth taking as writers.

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