“[Writing] is an act of sustained empathy.” - Andre Dubus, III
In 2011, researchers at the University of Michigan conducted a study on college students, who they found to be 40% less empathetic than students eight years prior.
Last month, the Australian podcast All in the Mind featured an interview with Peter Bazalgette, a British television executive and author of The Empathy Instinct. During the interview, Bazalgette argued that we have not so much lost our empathy, but rather strengthened our empathy toward our own “tribe” at the cost of empathy toward people outside our social bubble.
The Internet may be partially to blame for our empathy decline. We are all-too-often guilty of leaving our empathy at the door once we step foot into the digital landscape. We can’t see the person on the other side of the keyboard, and so we forget that the person we are typing to is just that: a person. Most of us could stand to be more empathetic at times, and for writers and digital storytellers - empathy is particularly significant.
Bazalgette argues for the importance of the arts and in particular - the telling of human stories - for strengthening our societal empathy. Storytelling has been a part of our culture for thousands of years.
Our ancestors told stories through hieroglyphics and spoken word, and storytelling is still a part of our everyday lives. We are always telling stories - from the mundane answer we give when our spouse says, “Honey, how was your day?” to the juicy bits of gossip we relate to our social circles.
Scientists at McMaster University used MRI scans to analyze how human brains respond to stories in a study published this month in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. The researchers found that storytelling activates the part of the brain that responds most to the characters within a story.
When we tell or hear a story, we are particularly attuned to the characters’ feelings, beliefs, and motives. Character, then, takes precedence over other components of a story, like plot. Given that empathy may be hardwired into us, empathy may be one of the driving factors for our fixation on characters.
So, what does all this mean for writers?
Content writers need strong empathy skills because:
All writing is a conversation. Proper grammar, rhythm, and vocabulary won’t matter if a writer hasn’t connected with her audience. Writers need readers.
Good storytelling has a human component. We can make our writing more engaging by including relatable characters, which empathy can help us develop.
Writers need to be sensitive to the reader’s needs. This one is especially important if you’re a health writer communicating with a vulnerable population, such as individuals diagnosed with a particular disease.
Writers need to adjust vocabulary to their audience. Writers need to be aware of technical jargon that is inaccessible to the reader, and it’s easier to use appropriate vocabulary when you can think like your reader.
Writers should focus on people, not product features. To relate to the reader, marketing writers need to focus on their audience’s needs and feelings and tell stories with human characters, not just list off a bunch of benefits or features of the product they’re marketing.
During the revision stage, a writer needs to move from thinking like a writer to thinking like a reader. When writers start the revision process, they evaluate how comprehensible the organization, structure, and flow of the writing will be for the reader.
Writers can tell a better story when they focus on the characters in the story. Often, readers will find it easier to engage with a text that includes a human story.
Effective marketing means meeting the needs of the target audience. Content writers need to understand not what they find interesting or useful, but rather what their audience will find interesting or useful.
Writing is global. The Internet connects us with people all over the world. We need to think outside our own “tribe” to empathize and understand diverse groups of people. We cannot assume our target audience has the same background, beliefs, education, knowledge, or values as we do - nor should we assume our own are superior.
Blame the anonymity of the Internet. Blame callous politicians. Blame excessive screen time that replaces human contact. Whatever the reason for our declining empathy, every aspect of our society could probably improve if we could understand one another better. For writers, empathy starts on the page with every word we write.
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