As a writer, I feel obligated not only to my thoughts and words, but also to my readers, their curiosity and openness. And it’s more important for me to deliver the best possible quality than to attract many people. I see it as my way of expressing audience empathy.
Why? How does empathy relate to the size of our target group?
I would argue that copy is less sensitive when we write universally.
Wait a minute… doesn’t empathic writing mean keeping it neutral and covering a large range of needs? When writing copy, we want to assume it will be 100 per cent understood and accepted by everyone. That‘s what we owe our readers, right?
Not if the language comes across as soulless or cliché. Not if it seems faceless despite the photos showing people — even though we have made every effort to take into account what everyone wants to hear.
Is this the right way to spread your message and make your business profitable?
There are many arguments against writing in a one-size-fits-all way.
Of course, professional copywriters should be able to write inspiring copy for a large audience. That‘s true.
Although if you reflect honestly, it’s an energy-sapping task, which usually results in skirting around people.
And failing to address them directly.
First, we have to face the limitation of creativity. When we’re compelled to filter “forbidden” or “unacceptable” words and observe the rules, we use fake or compensatory language. This then restricts the complexity, variety and playfulness of language.
If you were to add every possible ingredient to a meal to suit all the guests, it would only offend their taste buds. Rosemary roasted potatoes on raspberry sorbet in a caraway sauce — that could work, but it probably won’t.
The aim of making all readers happy turns writers into prisoners.
It takes away the choices offered to us by language. Our copy literally lacks tone and nuance. What we say sounds vague and dispirited. Or as copywriter Joanna Wiebe puts it:
“Vague is the enemy of conversion.”
When focussing on too many voices, our own fades.
Because the way we connect with the reader lacks humanity, the copy seems mechanical. This is all down to our fear of lost opportunities and external judgment, and lack of confidence in our own approach. The result being, we don’t end up reaching anyone. And then the copy has to be reconsidered, planned and rewritten.
Is this what our audience wants?
In my opinion, nobody benefits, and in fact, this often-quoted “average reader” doesn’t exist.
Even if people tend to respond more positively to certain patterns and despite the trends that emerge here and there, they are still individuals with unique personalities.
This leads on to another not particularly empathic aspect: the concept that copy will work “everywhere and for everyone” is mostly the consequence of manipulation (investing money, programming personalised algorithms, targeted exploitation of social issues, etc.).
But don’t you think our great solutions and offers can manage without these ethically questionable means?
In this regard, I have to mention the famous “filter bubble effect”. We mustn’t close our eyes to the fact there is an ecological mainstream with a steadfast attitude towards the world. In order to address as many people as possible, information gets shared without being checked properly. Unfortunately, the authors of fake news don‘t stop at animal cruelty and environmental damage.
The animal rights organisation PETA rightly hit the headlines with the manipulated video of an abused cat.
As this Guardian article shows, we mustn’t get self-congratulatory over increasing recycling rates. Plastic waste being shipped abroad is just another example of the widespread misunderstanding that what’s out of sight is truly taken care of.
When we share news, videos and pictures for the sake of reach and a good cause, it can seriously harm the credibility and relevance of our eco-ethical movement. It’s especially important that people like us who base our values on ecological principles and values of human dignity put sources and stories under even more scrutiny in order to gain traction for our cause.
I’m sure your readers don’t want to be addressed as a mass audience or be considered a homogenous mass.
That, however, doesn‘t exclude the power of ethical = empathic marketing to find a large audience.
How can your copy reach more individuals in a sensitive way?
One approach is the niche-oriented writing advocated primarily by Seth Godin. In search of the minimum viable audience, the copywriter addresses a defined ideal persona. Copy seems to be more genuine and organic when we focus on the needs of one person who embodies the people we want to reach.
However, the popular marketing specialist’s approach excludes certain people from the outset: “the average”, the “mass”, “the uninvolved”. This exclusion is judgmental and clashes with my understanding of writing FOR readers. Why shouldn‘t a previously uninterested person feel intrigued about participating in our mission? Is it entirely impossible to dive into the consciousness of an individual drowning in the mainstream’s maelstrom?
My personally favoured method works in the spirit of discovery.
I call it “self-empathic writing with surprise guarantee” or “writing in one’s own language”.
Defining no external needs upfront, we use language reflecting our personality, and remain curious about who will unexpectedly resonate with our copy. What applies to literary or dramatic work can also be transferred to the language we use to present ourselves, our products and our mission. Thus, we address all potential individuals who want to hear our voice, all these unknown, undefined and categorised addressees that make up an audience. We not only give THEM the necessary empathy, but also ourselves and our cause.
This approach is particularly useful when we:
- start over and are still looking for our own audience,
- want to explore the edges of the mainstream to reinvent ourselves or try to find out who our genuine voice resonates with the most (e.g. as a larger company without a defined target group)
- aim to express authenticity in an article owned and represented by a team member.
Finally, we give people the chance to not like us. Our offer (whether it is copy, a product or service) may seem unimportant and silly to them or even annoy them. It‘s part of empathic writing to do our audience the courtesy of the full range of emotions.
So, not wanting to please everyone is, in fact, very respectful to our audience. And isn’t it this respect, this sincere wish of connecting with one another that we urgently need right now in order to promote our cause of protecting the planet?
— Nadine Stelzer (English translation edited by Julia Graham)