In the Craft of Copywriting, Empathy is All.

5 minute read

Every day and much of the night, the hotel manager in Colombo faces sub-conscious “snap decisions” from customers when stuff goes wrong and stuff goes right and it’s human nature to focus on the wrong. And there’s the online teacher in Melbourne who lives in a perpetual state of change fatigue and knowledge insecurity brought on by regular waves of disruption in the media and communications space. Meanwhile, the mother in Milan gets cognitive dissonance whenever old-school attitudes dismiss her belief in raising her children in a gender-neutral home. Everybody has their own true story that makes them feel deeply the human condition.

How do we begin to write to them in a way that makes our copywriting “their story”?

It’s a fine line between creative writing (self-expression) and strategic writing (other-regarding). In this job called “copywriting”, we are having a dialogue with a particular person. Our aim — turning a scanner into a reader. As social researcher Hugh Mackay says, “you’ve got to put yourself in their shoes”. And to paraphrase singer/ songwriter, Joe South, walk a mile in them shoes.

In a word — empathy.

These days, the word empathy is starting to get bandied about a little too fast and loose, and risks being emptied of meaning. My aim here is to push back on the tendency to turn this valuable attribute into an in-vogue buzzword. If this happens, it stops being empathy and starts becoming mimicry. Manipulators can have excellent empathetic skills, but only for their own benefit.

Let me start by defining empathy as the ability to share and/or understand the emotions of others. According to a recent neurophysiological research paper titled Dissecting the Neural Mechanisms Mediating Empathy there are three variations on the theme of empathy.

Affective empathy is the ability to feel the other’s feelings.

 I feel you bro.

You share another’s emotion by feeling it strongly within yourself (be it pain, frustration, sadness, joy, disappointment and so on). If you score high on affective emotion, you will show visceral reactions like shuddering when watching a horrific scene in a movie, or crying at a heart-rending moment.

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand the emotions of others without necessarily feeling for them.

I know how you feel.

The usual suspect in this category is the psychologist. While they can skilfully understand, explain and describe the emotions disturbing or distorting one’s psyche, they do not necessarily share in the visceral experience.

Emotional regulation is the ability to switch on and switch off your emotions.


Police need to stay cool when confronted with violent behaviour. Paramedics need to stay centred when dealing with a tragic accident. Surgeons need to stay steady when operating on a patient.

copywriting empathySo how do we be more empathetic without falling into the trap of mimcry and manipulation?

You might be able to answer the question yourself by going through this Questionnaire for Cognitive and Affective Empathy used by Jean Decety (Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry, University of Chicago, USA). It shows how empathy was measured with self-report questionnaires.

As you can see from the questionnaire, empathy requires self-awareness. It also involves understanding the hopes, fears and desires of others.

But the short answer can be found in Mark Honigsbaum’s article, Barack Obama and the ‘Empathy Deficit’ where he sums up decades of scientific research into the simple act of “fostering greater perspective-taking”. He reasons that “when we make the imaginative effort to step into the shoes of another person and see things from their perspective, we become less capable of ignoring their suffering”.

Visualise yourself in the shoes of the hotel manager in Colombo at the mercy of snap decisions, the online teacher in Melbourne who wouldn’t knock back a cheer-squad, the mother in Milan who’ll take every little bit of empowerment that comes her way, and whomever you’re writing to today.

Then walk a mile in their shoes before you write.

Meanwhile, my online copywriting course’s latest timetable is up and running and ready to take your booking now. 

Originally posted 2018-09-05 05:08:50.

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