Empathic writing, the art of really resonating with your readers

Empathic writing focuses on very close complicity between the writer and the reader. It conveys its messages by directly appealing to emotions, senses, and subjective feelings. This kind of writing is the editorial embodiment of the “customer centred” approach, so popular in modern marketing, pushed to its limits.

My readers... who are you?

In writing as in love, you need to know someone well to appeal to them. Their desires, their needs, their loves, their hates… all essential information if you want to attract them. Though it’s “easy” to understand your family and friends, really knowing your readers is a whole different ball game. But this knowledge is absolutely essential to empathic writing. Using customer?data is a first step.

Whether it’s from your CRM, analysis of your internet statistics, contextual inquiries or even in-the-field observations, data is a goldmine for really understanding your customers. Analysed in depth, this data allows you (inter alia) to create personas, a kind of composite portrait used to humanise your different target segments. These standard customer portraits are a starting point to define browsing and reading scenarios on your website. 

Unfortunately, as they are too often romanticised and/or stereotypical, personas aren’t enough on their own to create this complicity essential to empathic writing. What is the REAL goal of this internet user visiting your e-commerce website? What does this potential customer REALLY want when they drop into your store? To buy something, obviously, provided they find what they’re looking for. But they rarely buy for buying’s sake.

For example, a man going to buy a drill in a DIY store doesn’t do so for the love of tools… but actually to drill holes, his end goal in buying it. It’s by getting to know their innermost thoughts that you’ll be able to get on the right wavelength to meet your targets’ expectations, and accordingly write really attention-grabbing articles. Your readers’ thoughts are ideally explored through empathic interactions with them.

Favouring physical contact over digital discussions is a real plus: meeting people at points of sale, trade shows or festivals, open days, VIP events, new product (i.e. “alpha” version) testing sessions, co-design workshops, etc. Creating opportunities like these at strategic points must form an integral part of your annual communications plan. There are three key objectives to keep in mind: 

  • LISTEN CLOSELY: let your customers express themselves, without judging them or directing the discussion. Feel free to reword certain needs or dissatisfactions to identify them more accurately. 
  • UNDERSTAND FULLY: identify expectations entirely, without ignoring any issues. Note down all comments, even if you discard the outliers later. 
  • ONLY APPEAL: in return, express your desire to improve by meeting the expectations of the people you meet… without finding yourself making false promises. 

These practices, borrowed from Non-Violent Communication, are not simple recipes, but rather an A-to-Z attitude to be adopted, from meeting to writing. In general, it’s better to forget about both communication and body language tricks and marketing jargon, which are far too widespread in the world of business. Benevolently-acquired customer knowledge is the best way to produce writing that is empathic, which will really resonate with your readers.

Fickle readers... How can you appeal to them in just a few words?

Readers have never had access to as much as content as they do today. Whatever the subject, a plethora of articles, reports, videos, publications, etc. can be found on a wide range of media. This “infobesity” has a negative impact on the way people actually consume writing. Readers don't want to starting to read without having first been “hooked” and convinced that they’ll enjoy reading such or such an article or a report. It’s up to writers to take account of this new concept: empathic presentation for empathic content. Internet users systematically scan the presentation of any new content. A short scroll up and down to check the length of the article, a quick look at the title and lead, if there is one, a glance at the visuals, and a little “picking” - i.e. reading of random extracts - are among the most common practices. These are almost a quick check list to see if it’s “worth” reading the article or not. If it’s too long, with stark, nondescript page layout, or too small a font size, readers will quickly give up on the text. But an article that appeals based on presentation designed to make reading easy and enjoyable will have a greater chance of success. Like web ergonomics, content is written by thinking “mobile first”: imagine your readers consuming your content on their telephone, crammed into public transport. They’ve got a short attention span, can’t read comfortably, and their mobile signal keeps cutting in and out. So it’s important to fully meet the visual scan criteria, in the following order: 

  • THE ALL-IMPORTANT TITLE: displayed in Google results and in the article, the title is what people read first… the key that will decide whether the reader keeps going… or not. Short, informative, intriguing, like the content that will follow, the title can be backed up with an equally-striking sub-title. In empathic writing, sensationalist titles should be avoided, favouring the truth, which can nonetheless be livened up with emotionally-resonant terms. 
  • THE LEAD LIES IN WAIT: a short eye-catching paragraph, the lead validates the internet user’s decision to keep reading beyond the title. Also displayed on Google results, two short sentences that are read in one go in three seconds are enough to ensure maximum effectiveness. 
  • THE VERY FIRST IMAGE: there is generally a photo or illustration in the “title block”, near the lead. It aims to attract people’s attention and set the tone of your publication. So AVOID banal and dull images. Take the time to properly choose and optimise this image. Feel free to use intriguing and captivating visuals. 
  • RELIEF AGAINST DRY TEXTS: the reader’s attention needs to be regularly pricked throughout the text. Breaking up your text is essential: subtitles, quotations, clever use of bold and text boxes like “focus on” or “did you know?” are good ways to attract the reader’s attention, which naturally tends to drop off as they read. 
  • BENEFICIAL CROSS-CONTENT BOUNCE: crossing your content is essential, whether optimising SEO or offering your readers the option of learning more in a related article. Don’t forget the original meaning of “web”, i.e. a spider’s web: spin a web with your content across your site. If you have a lot of information, tags are also a good way to effectively cross your articles. 

We won’t look at ergonomics and web design here, though they also play an essential role in making reading attractive and easy. Editorial empathy doesn’t concern only content itself, but also the formatting and writing of the micro-content mentioned earlier: making reading smoother, pleasing the eye, appealing to the senses via a sound structure, and reassuring the reader are empathic reflexes.

Presentation for content has never been so true as on the web, faced with the huge amount of content available.

Acquiring readers and developing their loyalty via editorial empathy

Let there be no mistake: a well-presented text is not enough. Once the reader is comfortable with your page layout, the real reading process begins… but can quickly be cut short if your content doesn’t resonate with your reader. A staid style, a sensationalist approach, vague information or even overly-dry storytelling, and the internet user immediately gives up on your article. Why are they here? What do they expect to get out of your content? How can you offer them an enjoyable and rewarding read? Empathic writing consists of concentrating on reader expectations from start to finish. 

Writing is like tightrope walking. Identifying where reader expectations and your own objectives meet. If they are overly conspicuous, internet users flee, and if they are concealed, your content is shorn of its raison d’être. Empathic writing consciously shifts the balance in favour of the reader, without forgetting the desired goal after the content has been consumed. Siding with readers enables optimal identification of key messages, style, story, etc. that will appeal to them, then win them over to your point of view. 

Humans are naturally self-centred. They will more easily be interested in issues with a close connection to them - geographical, professional, recent and relevant to their daily lives. If possible, introducing a local touch to your writing will inevitably increase interest. The most common factor is impact on everyday life: what will this event / this product / this fact change in your reader’s life? 

Hearing from humans in your writing is a good way to create a close connection: personal accounts, interviews, quotations, etc. allow real people to speak. They then address readers, either throughout the article or occasionally. This creates interest and reinforces the truthfulness of your writing: someone who directly witnesses a situation is more trustworthy and credible that an outsider. 

Appealing to emotions and senses in your descriptions creates immediate complicity with the reader. If the narration is gripping, your article turns into a story… and you a storyteller! Unlike the rules of traditional writing that require concision (see below) storytelling aims to hook readers using the passion stirred up by its prose. This narrative method is widely used to tell anecdotes, the history of a business, a journey, an experience, or even a look behind the scenes of an event. 

But favouring effectiveness over storytelling is necessary if you’re targeting busy readers. In this case, concision and immediacy are what we need. Are your readers short on time? If so, key information should be included at the start of your article, even if this isn’t what you want to do or are used to doing. In fact, it’s better for an internet user to read only the first third of your article than nothing at all. At the same time, feel free to cut down the first draft of your text via successive proofreading, improving awkward turns of phrase, eliminating generalities and avoiding going off-topic. 

There is no editorial “magic spell” that will guarantee your readers are happy. Writers have a large number of tools and methods, but they won’t all be suited to the type of content being written or the group of readers being targeted. Never forget that you’re writing for them and through them. Some people like the sound of their spoken voice, others their written voice. This attitude must be abandoned: in empathic writing, writers place their readers ahead of themselves. 

The empatic editorial charter, or how to pamper your writers

An editorial charter is a document used to formalise the practices to be followed regarding the editorial line of a communicating organisation. It is designed for writers and is the key to your editorial flow, from collection of raw information to the finished article. Too often perceived as austere and restrictive, a charter can be made empathic, based on writers’ actual expectations and practices.

More than a mere collection of good practices, it then becomes an essential standard used positively on a daily basis. Empathic writing can be used when drawing up an editorial charter. After all, writers are the main users of this document: as readers themselves, why wouldn’t they be entitled to the same benevolence as their target readership? For there to be overall editorial consistency, the raison d’être of a charter, this reference document must be empathically designed. Essential in a multi-writer logistical set-up, your editorial charter examines the following issues: 

  • I.D.: this marketing-oriented section is very to the point and highlights your target readers, your positioning and the objectives of the related communications medium. Feel free to include the description of the personas and reading scenarios in the appendices. 
  • EDITORIAL LINE: the heart of your charter, listing the information used by writers every day. This includes the key messages, tone and style to be used, lexical field and syntax rules. If there is a glossary of business terms, it should be included in the appendices. 
  • LOGISTICS: the description of your editorial production line, used to identify who does what and when, the input/output of each stage, and the expected frequency of publication. If necessary, your annual communication plan will be included in the appendices. 
  • GOOD S.E.O. AND ACCESSIBILITY PRACTICES: the full list of editorial rules to be followed to guarantee accessibility for blind/visually-impaired readers and optimal SEO. These rules are not hard to follow, are a question of editorial common sense, and are very easy to understand with a moderate effort. 

How can such dense content be made empathic? An austere and nondescript charter will be unattractive and rarely used, due to disinterest and lack of credibility. On top of presentation and content, which must comply with good editorial practices, there are three key points to keep in mind: Think “reading levels”, by including the data consulted in the appendices from time to time, so as to leave space for useful everyday information in the main document. Adopt a resolutely writer-centred approach, by interviewing people on their working habits and / or observing them in real-life situations.

This will improve your document’s organisation and presentation. Ideally, directly involve writers in creating the editorial charter (consultation, opinions, workshops, etc.) Stick to r al-life situations as much as possible, by drawing parallels between the writing process and the writing tool. For example, it’s worth illustrating good SEO practice by drawing arrows to the relevant input fields in your back-office screenshots.

It’s also worth directly including context-relevant charter information summaries in the content management tool. Following these few recommendations will prevent your charter from being austere, making it more attractive and practical. An editorial charter must be “bedside reading” for your writers, the document they instinctively turn to whenever they have questions about their writing.

Providing an enjoyable charter, designed for them, will favour this approach. In brief, empathising with writers in the charter designed for them goes hand in hand with reader empathy, the spearhead of your editorial line. This contributes to spreading a positive philosophy to every level of your logistics, from production to writing. Your writers need to embrace editorial empathy to practice it naturally, including in their everyday work. 

Illustrator: Julie Vuillaume, Web designer – SQLI

Published in Siècle Digital