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3 Ways to Master the Power of Empathy in Your Writing

Updated on May 17, 2019Writing Tips

Who are you writing for? Knowing means the difference between connecting with an audience and communicating into a void. Understanding the thoughts and feelings of your readers is necessary to forge that connection. Empathy is the key to gaining readers and followers in all kinds of writing, from blogging to marketing to social media.

We often mistake empathy for sympathy, but there’s a difference. Sympathy means feeling sorry for another’s misfortune; empathy means understanding their thoughts and feelings. When you write with empathy, you’re putting yourself in the place of the person you’re communicating with, and that helps your writing resonate with them.

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Three Ways to Write With Empathy

1 Ask, “Who will read this article?”

Marketers often create personas, a term that refers to a sort of fictional representation of their customers or users. An advertising team for a detergent brand might refer to a persona named Janet, a young mom who finds there aren’t enough hours in a day to complete household chores and raise young kids. The team might brainstorm what a typical day for Janet looks like. What does she struggle with? How does she feel?

If the marketing team defines Janet as a working mother facing the challenges of raising a family, they might create an ad showing a woman gazing skyward in dismay while her toddler leaves a jam handprint on her white dress shirt and the mud-caked preschooler tugging at her sleeve wreaks similar havoc on her power blazer. Real working moms are likely to find the image all too relatable.

Personas aren’t just for advertising, though. You can imagine your reader and find ways to engage them in writing rather than a full-page advertisement. Your target audience may be broader than Janet the Harried Mom, too. (Just don’t make it too broad. You can’t please, let alone write for, everybody.) Ask yourself a series of questions like:

  • What age range is my reader?
  • What kind of job do they have?
  • What interests do they have?
  • What challenges do they face?
  • What’s their skill level?
  • What’s missing? What unmet need can this fill?
  • What gaps might they have in their knowledge of your topic?

When you understand your audience, you can write something that’s more likely to resonate with them.

You don’t own empathy, [your readers] do. . . . Like generosity or caring, empathy should never be about you. You can’t own it. You can only provide it. So be generous. Let it go. Let it be all about them. Then stand back, and watch it all come back to you.

Kevin McKeon for AdAge

2 Ask, “What questions do they have?”

Have you ever spent hours writing something only to have it ignored? Maybe that blog post you poured yourself into earned no comments and few views, or you just couldn’t get any love for that carefully crafted social media campaign. It’s possible you forgot to consider your reader’s questions. Inquisitiveness is what inspires us to search, read, and connect.

You may be reading this blog post because the headline intrigued you, or because you heard that empathy plays a powerful role in effective writing and you searched for articles to help you write with more empathy. My job as a writer is to anticipate the types of things you might want to know. I considered questions like:

  • What is empathy?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What are some ways to use empathy in writing?

Now, instead of rambling or preaching, my article can answer readers’ questions in a clear, organized way.

Here’s a tip: Perform a Google search on your topic. (Use an incognito browser window so your search isn’t influenced by your own browsing history.) The suggestions that automatically populate the search field as you type may reveal questions people frequently ask about the topic.

If you’re stumped about what your readers want, or your guesses seem to be missing the mark, there’s a simple solution—ask them. Conduct an informal social media survey, use a blog post to ask for comments, or use a tool like Survey Monkey.

3 Let yourself be human

We have robots capable of writing the news, but there’s one thing we humans have that bots don’t: lived experiences. Readers engage when they know there’s a real person behind the writing. Whenever it makes sense to, share a little of yourself in your articles, social posts, and even emails. When your audience knows you’ve been where they are, they’re more likely to pay attention to what you have to say. Use anecdotes and give them brief glimpses into your own struggles, observations, and anything else they might relate to.

And don’t forget to make your writing conversational.

Instead of writing like you’re churning out a dry research paper, write as though you’re telling a friend about some cool new stuff you’ve learned. Use your own natural, conversational tone. Keep your language simple and direct. In other words, just be you. No one else can.

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