The Problem With Empathy in Copywriting

It’s a common maxim among copywriters: “empathize with your readers.”

“Write something that resonates with their pain,” we’re told in blog posts and ebooks. “Walk a mile in their shoes.”

Sounds easy.

There’s even a formula: Close your eyes, imagine the readers’ problems and then – simply – talk about how you solve those problems.

But it’s not that easy. If it were, things like this wouldn’t happen.  

Faking empathy leads to tone deaf messaging. Without a deeper understanding of what’s really going on, “trying on” your audience’s feelings will never be enough.

The Key to Better Communication

Let’s be clear about one thing: empathy is good. It keeps us all from being self-absorbed assholes. Trying to write persuasive copy without empathy is a bad idea, one that will ensure you have a short copywriting career.

The goal of empathy is better communication – plain and simple. But like most things these days, the idea of “empathizing with your readers” has become watered down, oft-repeated bullshit, void of any meaning.

The problem is that too many think of writing with empathy as a stopping place, when, really, empathy is just the cost of entry. Writing copy while imagining people’s problems is lazy and it’s self-centered. And it shirks your responsibilities as a copywriting. It’s pretending to do the work of understanding your customer, while hoping to get good results.

Better communication doesn’t come from guessing. It comes from listening.  

If I want to communicate with my wife, I don’t start by telling her how great I am and how I can solve her problems (or worse, imagining her problems and giving her solutions to them).

I shut up and let her talk. I ask her questions. I make sure I understand. Then we have a conversation.  

If you want to really understand your customers, first, you have to stop thinking of them as people who need to buy from you and start thinking of them as actual people. And like actual people, you’ll need to reach out to them, ask them questions, and have real conversations.

If you’re copywriter who’s writing for busy moms, but you’re not a mom, you can’t pretend to know the panic a mom feels as one kids throws a fit in the aisle while the other is telling her she just pooped while she has a cart full of food, some of which will melt soon. Sure, you can imagine that scenario, but you’ll never understand it.

And if you’re a twenty-something male with no kids, there’s not a chance in hell you’re going to get this right.

I know what you’re about to say: “So I should only write about what I know?”

Nope. Absolutely not. You wouldn’t have much of a career that way. So you need a work-around.

The Best Way to Write Is To Listen

Mike Monteiro, in his Designer’s Code of Ethics says, “Empathy is a pretty word for exclusion. If you want to know how women would use something you’re designing get a woman on the team that’s designing it.”

Too often, we use empathy as an excuse. It helps us feel like we understand, like we’re taking another’s perspective of the world into account. But the reality is that there are situations I’ll never be able to empathize with. I can pretend to know, but I don’t.

Which is a problem when your job is to know. And knowing is made up mostly of feeling, the premise of empathy. So to know, you must feel. And to feel, you must experience. And to experience, you have to transform into a million different people.

And when you haven’t nailed the transformation into other people process, you’re left with one thing: talking to (potential) customers.  

A copywriter’s real job has little to do with actual writing. It has everything to do with research. Listening is the best kind of research there is. Because when you do it right, you’re not writing anything. You mimicking potential customer’s feelings back to them.

No amount of guessing (empathy) can get you the kinds of results validation can.

If you’re a twenty-something-year-old single male, but you’re writing for busy moms, you’re going to want to talk some mothers.

Even better, talk to moms with three kids who know what it’s like to go shopping on a Friday morning with all of them in tow. Ask her to tell you about that situation, then shut up and listen.

Can’t talk to customers? Don’t know any moms? Time to get on the Internet!

Reddit, Amazon Book Reviews, Mom Blogs, Comment Threads… all are great places to mine actual customer words, experiences, and problems.

Start a spreadsheet and copy and paste till you have everything you need to understand your customers. Who said listening had to involve your ears?

You’ll Have to Change Your Thinking

I don’t want to get too deep here, but listening before empathizing has the capacity to solve a number of problems in our lives, copywriting-based or otherwise. Look at this excerpt from a Fran Lebowitz article in 1997 addressing race and racism in America:

“The way to approach it [race], I think, is not to ask, “What would it be like to be black?” but to seriously consider what it is like to be white. That’s something white people almost never think about. And what it is like to be white is not to say, “We have to level the playing field,” but to acknowledge that not only do white people own the playing field but they have so designated this plot of land as a playing field to begin with. White people are the playing field. The advantage of being white is so extreme, so overwhelming, so immense, that to use the word “advantage” at all is misleading since it implies a kind of parity that simply does not exist...

White people look like their parents, whom we already know to be in charge. This is what white people look like—other white people. The owners. The people in charge. That’s the advantage of being white. And that’s the game. So by the time the white person sees the black person standing next to him at what he thinks is the starting line, the black person should be exhausted from his long and arduous trek to the beginning.”

This is how you turn empathy on its head (if not making a full-out indictment against empathy as a whole). Even more so, though, it’s a call to action to change our thinking about what we think we know about others.

Self-absorption disguised as empathy creates more problems than just bad copy, too. Look at the “bro culture” and subsequent rampant sexism of Silicon Valley. Hell, look at our current administration and their faux-empathy. A man won the White House with false empathy (so...maybe it does work?)!

When there’s a lack of diversity in the room, there will always be problems. No amount of empathy from a room full of white men in their 60s is going to help understand the diverse problems and emotions a woman experiences when walking into Planned Parenthood. Or the grocery store.

Start With Empathy, Don’t End With It

Empathy has to be the start of your work, not it’s ending. But as writers, we have to go beyond empathy. Too many of us are happy to say we wrote from someone else’s POV, making our best guess as to what’s important to say.

But have you listened? Have you asked questions and allowed someone else to speak?

Because the best copywriters know that the most powerful words don’t come from us, but from the people we’re trying to reach. Theirs are the words that matter most.

We just have to be smart enough to receive them.