• Chris Silberston

Empathy. The most persuasive communication tool?


In the Western world, New Zealand has done a great job at making the rest of us look bad in recent months. Other countries, like Vietnam, or Mongolia, have done even better stamping out COVID-19, but, for whatever reason, people aren’t talking about them. Perhaps it’s because they don’t have Jacinda Ardern.


New Zealand might have a unique electoral system. They might be in the middle of the ocean, miles from anywhere. They might have one of the lowest population densities in the world. But none of that explains how much everyone wants Ardern to be their own political leader.


As copywriters, we have our own take on it: empathy.


Compare and contrast world leaders

Even in the best of times, people like to feel included and valued. But it’s especially important during a crisis when everyone is anxious and confused. Ardern’s reassuring and inclusive communication style has won her fans all over the world. During the Christchurch mosque shooting, her message was one of unity:


Many of those affected by the shooting may be migrants to New Zealand. They may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not.


And, of course, hosting Facebook live Q&As during lockdown was genius.


Because of the lag with COVID-19, the time from someone having contact with someone who has it, catching it themselves, then being symptomatic and being tested positive – it’s a number of days before all of that happens. So we won’t see the positive benefit of all of the effort you’re about to put in for self-isolation for a few days, yet, quite a number – I’d say at least 10 days. So don’t be disheartened.


Compare that to Boris Johnson’s approach, talking about threats and devastation and how the government is going to war and they’re enlisting you in their fight:


Good evening. The coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades, and this country is not alone. All over the world, we’re seeing the devastating impact of this invisible killer. And so, tonight, I want to update you on the latest steps we’re taking to fight the disease, and what you can do to help.


The tone of his briefings has stayed consistent all the way through lockdown:


From Monday, we will allow up to six people to meet outside, provided those from different households continue strictly to observe social distancing rules by staying two meters apart. At the moment, as you know, people can meet in parks, but not in private gardens.


The government will allow? That’s very kind of them.


Here he throws in a ‘together’ but it’s lost in the dictator-like forcefulness of the rest of the sentence:


I cannot and will not throw away all the gains we have made together, and so the changes we are making are limited and cautious.


Of course, there are other bits of his speeches that do sound a bit softer and more inclusive, but, on the whole, the tone implies the government are doing everything, you just need to listen and do what they say.


And what about other world leaders?


I see the disinfectant knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that? By injection inside, or, almost a cleaning. Because, you see, it gets in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number in the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that but you’re going to have to use medical doctors. But it sounds interesting to me.


Maybe we won’t go there.


How to show empathy

What all this has shown us is that people respond positively to someone on their side. So how can you use this in your own communication?


1. Use everyday language

Ardern’s Facebook live sessions show that being relatable doesn’t make you any less authoritative – it just makes it easier for people to agree with you. If you write like you’re having a conversation with someone in your own home while wearing a comfy jumper, you’ll find people are much more willing to engage with you. That’s true whether your audience is a 17-year-old gamer or a high-level executive.


2. Use straightforward explanations

Complicated situations seem much less daunting when they’re explained simply. If you’re a political leader explaining why people need to stay at home, a lecturer explaining quantum theory, or a solicitor explaining a house purchase, straightforward answers will get you much further than unnecessary jargon.


3. Put people in the right mood

We’re all sick of hearing about the war in Afghanistan. The war on drugs. The war against COVID-19. But New Zealand’s strategy was to talk about a collective effort, not a war. Ardern spoke of her ‘team of five million’. It turns out that the positive emotions that come from thinking about communities pulling together were much stronger than the negative emotions from thinking about fighting an invisible enemy.


Using positive and evocative language in your copy is a subtle way of showing people that you care about their feelings. If you’re writing a quarterly shareholder report about stock prices ‘rising significantly’, why not say they ‘soared’? The meaning is the same but it’s much more inspiring.


4. Cut the waffle

Many B2B communications especially are so long and boring that they’ll never get read. Waffle tells people that you don’t value their time. Get to the point and your busy readers will be much more likely to engage with your content. The biggest culprit is often repetition: look for sentences that are simply repeating points you made elsewhere.


5. Think about your audience

Perhaps the most important bit of writing advice. If you really spend time thinking about your reader – who they are, what they’re doing, what they need from you – you’re much more likely to write something they’ll enjoy and appreciate.


Perhaps you’re writing a ‘how we’re keeping our staff safe during COVID-19’ email. Then you think about your reader and realise they’re tired of hearing it. So you come up with something interesting to distract them instead. Your readers will be thankful that you get them and what they’re going through.


Other persuasive tools are available

There are some instances where empathy might not be that useful – a warning sign, for example, often needs to be very clear and unambiguous, and emotions don’t really come into it. But for most types of writing, empathy is an essential tool.


Remember, though, that it’s just one element of successful copywriting. Jacinda Ardern might be good at empathising with the people of New Zealand, but she’s also a confident leader with a collaborative government behind her. Empathy is a great way to polish a message. You just need a strong message to begin with.

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