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.