4 Steps you can take today to develop empathy and improve your copy

I have a relative who’s 66. In his younger years he built a steel fabrication company from the ground up, and acquired a small fortune for his hard work. Airport hangars, schools, churches, office buildings… he fabricated buildings that were shipped all over the US and the Caribbean…

As his kids grew up, one by one they helped him with the business, and the family enjoyed the amenities of 

Empathy for another person's painprosperity with “toys” and cars, and beautiful clothing…and a 50 acre homestead in the Texas hill country.

However, at mid-life, a series of questionable decisions led to the loss of his fortune, as well as failing health. His Type 2 diabetes became less and less controlled, his sons shouldered the family business, he found himself alone in a nursing home, and with very little to show for his life.

Watching that tragedy was gripping for me. There were countless lessons to be learned by any fly on the wall who might be watching. He was hard-headed and stubborn, so his approach to his health was tragically lacking. One day he collapsed on his driveway and lay there for over an hour, trying to wave down neighbors to help him. He was too weak to get up by himself.

After a day in the hospital, he suffered respiratory failure and would have died, if staff hadn’t found him unconscious and blue…and revived him.

Well, about a year later, it happened that I found myself writing a promotion for a diabetes product. What story do you think I used? 

Of course, it was this one that was so close to home for me. I dove into the memory of that terrible time in this relative’s life, and I described what it felt like to live it again…because my target audience was the loved one of someone with out-of-control Type 2 diabetes.

One quality of good copy is that it resonates with the reader’s pain. The writer is able to put himself inside the head – or heart – of the target audience….and feel the pain the target, or avatar, feels. From that position, he can write in a way that hooks the avatar because he’s writing what he understands they feel,  first hand.

How does a copywriter do that?

Some people are naturally empathic, and others – not so much. Just like some people are great at math and others aren’t. Some people have a natural sense of style, and others seriously have no feel whatsoever what pieces look good together and what clashes like a  box of crayons run through a blender that promptly vomited.

Still, most college students are required to take and pass algebra, whether it comes naturally or not. So those who struggle have to get help and tutoring to pass it. In the same way, there are things you can do to develop empathy, whether you already have it or not, and thereby improve your copy.

In an article I recently read by the empathy expert, Roman Kcrznaric, I saw some great ideas for strengthening empathy in those born with it in abundance, as well as developing it for those who weren’t.

Kcrznaric defines empathy as the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. 

He says in the last ten years or so, neuroscience has identified a section in our brains they call the empathy circuit. If this area of the brain is damaged, it can impede our ability to understand what another person feels. So, because of damage, there are some who can’t learn to be empathic.

Comforting and showing empathyOf course, that damage can be physical or emotional, such as a child who grows up deprived of nurturing and attachment relationships in the the first two years of life. But we’re not referring to those extreme situations.

In general, it’s believed that we’re hardwired to have compassion and empathy for others. And according to Kcrznaric, there are 6 habits highly empathic people have that strengthen their empathy for others. For the purpose of this article and how it relates to copywriting, let’s talk about the first four.

1. Cultivate Curiosity about Strangers – Show interest in the people next to you on the bus or the plane, or in line at the grocery, and ask questions to learn more about what their life is like. You’re not interviewing them for an FBI report, so lose the interrogation techniques.

Rather put yourself in their shoes mentally as they describe their home, their family, their job, their pets. Practice trying to picture what that feels like…to be that person.

2. Challenge yourself to dispel your own prejudices and sweeping judgments about groups of

people, and rather look for things you have in common with individuals in a given group. Find ways to cultivate friendships with those individuals…and make note of the life experiences, both pleasures and difficulties, you share with that person.

The more you learn about him, the more fully you can walk in his shoes, and get inside his head…and understand him.

3.Try out someone else’s life…even for a day. To live in someone else’s shoes, is experiential empathy. Feeling what they feel by “being them.”  Before judging and distancing yourself from a homeless person holding a sign, live outside for a week with no food except what you can get from donations of passersby. Feel the hunger. Feel the thirst. Feel the shame.

While you’re there, listen to the others in that predicament. Be curious about their story, and get them to tell you about it. You’ll never forget the stories you hear. And as they talk…feel your current experience as put yourself in their shoes.

4. Listen hard…and open up – highly empathic people listen intently to the other person, to grasp what he’s feeling, describing, and trying to convey. Search your memory and experiences to find something filed there that can represent what the speaker is describing…so you can come close to knowing what he feels.

Allow yourself to care about what he’s experiencing. Then, drop your own wall, and let him see that you’re feeling what he’s describing. You might draw upon a memory of your own to show him you feel what he’s feeling, and that you understand. Practice this habit, because this is an effective way to draw upon memories when you write resonating copy…memories of feelings the reader can resonate with.

We usually don’t realize how walled off we are to feel another’s suffering, or fear. Take the risk.  Jump in with both feet. Watch your awareness broaden. Don’t be Marie Antoinette…dismissing their suffering with a callous “let them eat cake”… feel their hunger. So your words can resonate with them.

From a copy perspective…a strong ability to empathize strengthens you as a copywriter to climb inside your reader’s head…and show those painful feelings he’s feeling that you’re trying to reach. To strengthen your copy, take the risk of walking in your reader’s shoes… live his life, feel his feelings.  Then start writing, and reach him with the solution to his pain.


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