Good Writing Starts with Empathy

In spite of so many shared societal experiences over the past two years, our connection to one another feels low on the ground these days. We all felt the same exhaustion and experienced the same pandemic stress, yet we have a hard time recognizing that our neighbors felt the same way. We’ve hit a communications rut. 

With social media growing more caustic by the minute, people seem to have abandoned one of the basic tenets of good communication—empathy. Empathy connects us to each other and allows us to better understand the experiences of others.

Wait, don’t you mean sympathy? Here’s a short video on the difference between empathy and sympathy. 

From a communications standpoint, empathy is key to good storytelling. Stories allow for greater empathy and provide points of connection between your audience and the people they’ve never met.

As you consider the best way to tell a message, whether it’s through video, visual, written or oral communication, your audience is your first consideration, and empathy is one of the best ways of connecting and communicating with your audience effectively.

Clarity is Charity

A college professor once told me that all communication should be charitable (shoutout to Chad Engbers). In anything you create, make sure you are clear and understood. Clarity is charity. Or, as Brene Brown says in Daring to Lead, “Clear is Kind. Unclear is Unkind.” If someone can’t understand your groundbreaking discovery that will fundamentally change the way the world behaves, then your groundbreaking discovery might as well have not happened.

There are always empathetic audience considerations when communicating:

  • Who is your audience? 
  • Do they want to hear your message? 
  • What’s new/different/exciting about what you have to say from their perspective? 
  • Where is your audience? 
  • What do you want them to do about the information you’re providing?

If you want to explain to someone why they shouldn’t litter, you’re going to teach them to empathize first. “Why can’t I just leave my candy wrapper on the ground?” Well, let’s think about the people who may have to clean up after you, or the nearby stream that wrapper may clog. How do your actions or your words affect the world around you?

Connect with Your Audience

Empathy fuels good storytelling. Concepts or arguments that are difficult to understand benefit the most from storytelling. The next time you try to explain a difficult concept, especially something that feels oppositional, stop yourself from giving a list of argumentative points and instead tell a story. The moment that your concept has a face and a history, you can engage with your audience’s empathy instead of their knee-jerk reaction. That desire to connect with others encourages you to communicate in a way that is winsome and empathetic.

Empathy uses connections and basic understanding to communicate in large and small ways, whether it’s a sign on a downtown boutique or a philosophical treatise. Charitable, empathetic copy:

  • Uses easily understood words.
  • Uses short sentences.
  • Uses grammar that helps a reader instead of hindering them. Sometimes Oxford commas ARE appropriate.
  • Uses a limited number of “be” verbs or passive voice. Every once in a while passive language helps your reader focus, but most of the time it takes action and agency away from your subject.
  • Avoids expressions that inherently carry judgment: should, ought to, need to, never, etc.
  • Communicates a true understanding of opposing perspectives.

Get Out of the Communications Rut

If you’re not sure how your tone or writing style connects with your audience, give it to someone else to read. Otherwise, step away from your writing for at least 8 hours and come back the next day.

You can also try running your copy through the Hemingway Editor to check reading level, passive voice and other pesky issues. Or try reading what you wrote out loud. If at any point you stumble over a word, phrase or sentence, consider reworking.

No matter how big or small your audience, all writing provides an opportunity to connect and empathize with others.

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