When Thomas Harris wrote Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, he shadowed his characters in each scene.
Invisible to them, he took notes on their conversations.
But when creeping into the presence of Dr. Hannibal Lecter for the first time – his skin crawled … as if the doctor knew he was there.
Harris had created a character so REAL, he was acting on freewill.
There’s a muscle fiction writers use to do this:
A muscle all marketers and copywriters can train to:
- Burrow inside the reader’s mind (no bullshit)
- Create content that dwarfs the competition (no extra budget required)
- Never run out of useful topics to write about (no matter how creative you are or not)
But you’ve heard this before …
Know your customer. Create personas. Use demographic profiling. Design an empathy map – then use it to fuel your experience map. Create unique content. Make sure your content strikes a chord. Use emotive language.
If you’ve ever read a blog post on content strategy, lumped three more tasks onto your to-do list, then cursed your lack of time to look into those things any further – you know what I’m talking about.
This isn’t one of those blog posts.
— Note: There ARE ways of unlocking more time for venturing into the unknown. And it’s crucial. But that’s another series that Paul’s looking into. If you’d like to stab at it yourself, let us know in the comments. —
Do You Share My Rookie Understanding of Empathy?
Before researching empathy, I thought it was just an enhanced form of sympathy.
Instead of feeling sorry for an interview candidate who didn’t make it onto my team last year, I suffered her sense of rejection – simply by remembering when it happened to me.
I now know empathy goes much deeper than that.
And just so happens another Tom Harris character can help to wrap our heads around it.
What can Hannibal Teach Us About ‘Pure Empathy’?
Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham in the TV Series Hannibal – an FBI consultant, with a gift for solving murder cases, using what Dr. Lecter calls ‘pure empathy’ for the killers.
It’s involuntary. He couldn’t stop himself if he tried. What he has is pure empathy. And projection. He can assume your point of view, or mine — and maybe some other points of view that scare him. It’s an uncomfortable gift, Jack. Perception’s a tool that’s pointed on both ends.
~ Dr. Hannibal Lecter
In real life, such haunting levels of empathy are rare – yet features of Will Graham’s character are often shared by people with autism.
— Note: We’re about to deep-dive here. If you’re hunting some simple ‘how to’ guides on using empathy, then scroll to the end of this post, skimming as you go, and there are two links to previous posts there.
It’s up to you – but I’d brave the high-pressure stuff for the next 1600 words. You’re already here anyway. And once you tap into this – everything you ever learn about empathy (from anywhere) becomes even more useable. —
Up until the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne published a study into a The Intense World Syndrome – an Alternative Hypothesis for Autism, most of us believed autistic people lacked the ability to empathise.
The study suggests the reverse.
Imagine dread tugging at your gut, when a stranger’s caught riding without a train ticket.
Imagine stepping into your carriage, and before you even sit down, feeling the emotions of every other passenger in earshot. So much emotion, and so fast, and so sharply — on top of your emotions, your worries, your general thoughts and everything else rattling in and out of your mind — that you simply can’t process a fragment of it.
This sensation has been described by multiple people with Asperger’s Syndrome.
And Cara (a licensed Chicago attorney diagnosed with autism) expresses a fascinating opinion on how Will Graham is the same – arguing against the director of the show (Bryan Fuller), who suggests he has ‘the opposite’ – revealing an upsetting truth about empathy …
The thing that I found very interesting, was that he has the line in there about Asperger’s where he says he’s on the spectrum, but then that all of a suddenly became ‘Oh, he’s got Asperger’s’. And I was like ‘Well, no, he doesn’t, he actually has the opposite of that’.
It is the very biggest myth about us, that we do not have empathy for other living souls. And it is the most pernicious.
There are some autistics who do not feel empathy. That much is true.
But there are many more who do. Who feel empathy in buckets, in rivers. We just don’t feel it in the same way you do. We have if anything too much affective empathy and not enough cognitive empathy.
When I looked into it further, I realised both can be seen as onto something.
To understand it (and respect it … given I’m walking a skinny line by touching on autism, with no direct experience), I had to listen to Cara. And I mean LISTEN, like she was my surgeon.
And that’s when I uncovered the most powerful insight into empathy we could ever try to grasp as copywriters …
There are actually three types:
- Empathetic Concern
The ability to feel sorry for others.
- Affective Empathy:
The ability to feel the emotions of others.
- Cognitive Empathy
The ability to experience the thoughts and motivations of others. And understand their perspective.
The Lausanne researchers say autistic people don’t usually have a problem with the first two, yet can often struggle processing the third when in the moment – which stalls them from risking emotional response:
Such excessive information handling is proposed to produce hyper-perception, hyper-attention, and hyper-memory, which could become the fundamental cognitive handicap in all cases of autism.
~ Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
Will Graham definitely shows signs of being autistic in the show:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Rarely expressing emotion
- Preferring the comfort of animals over humans (his dogs)
If he had the opposite of Asperger’s Syndrome, it’d be less likely for him to exhibit the behaviours listed above. So I don’t think we can say he has the opposite.
But Will definitely does possess the third type of empathy (cognitive) too … in pints.
And that’s what I think Hannibal’s getting at when he talks about Will’s ‘pure empathy’ and ‘assuming your point of view’.
Imagine lust flooding your veins, when shuffling into a murder scene as the detective. Imagine tasting blood, when realising the killer ate his victim.
Imagine feeling she deserved it.
Whether he’s meant to be autistic or not – this is where Will Graham sits on the empathy spectrum.
— Note: It’s not my place to be debating the accuracy of the character’s ‘condition’. After researching the effects of autism from Cara and others like her, I realised it’s easy for us (marketers) to see it all as an advantage … and overlook how alienated autistic people can become through being so misunderstood. —
My point is that we need to learn the difference between understanding the thoughts of others, and experiencing them as if they’re our own.
For most of my career, I’ve only empathised with readers by relating my experiences to theirs.
But there are ways to wear the skin of your audience – as Will Graham wears the skin of a sociopath. As a fiction writer wears the skin of her characters.
You just need the guts to step in unguarded.
If your view on the world is challenged – acknowledge it, assess it, but don’t ignore it.
Once you’re sharing the blood of your reader – their reality takes precedence over yours.
I’m about to share one method for getting close to ‘pure empathy’, which Paul and I are using every day for our own writing.
I’m sharing just this one because I know it works. I’ve never read about it anywhere else. And anybody, of any level in copywriting, can deffo use it too.
— Note: If you’ve got a thought on this right now, please write it down and share it in the comments. This topic is too big for me alone – we need as many minds on this as possible (especially if you study psychology). —
Is This the Closest We Can Get to Will Graham’s Level of Empathy?
Starting now, as you’re reading this, recognise the thoughts in your head. And write them down.
It’s therapeutic to do this. And simple. But you’ll thank me for it in three months.
As you rise in your career, it’s easy to forget the problems you faced at the lower levels.
Let’s take a successful travel blogger, for example.
If she wants to sell her ebook on How to ‘Make It’ as a Travel Blogger and Earn a Living from Seeing the World, she’s gotta use empathy to sell it.
If all she talks about is how she gained prestige in the travel community, and how she tackled her first major speaking slot at a conference, and how her next step is to build a school in Ghana – these problems and desires are light-years from the beginner’s world.
But if she’d been writing down her fears, problems and hopes from the very beginning, she could start advising her n00b followers on more familiar problems like getting the first paid gig, how to handle marketing agencies who want to buy links, how to keep up with the industry and not get left behind, how to manage your finances, how to know when it’s time to quit your job, how to even find the time to write between everyday life, and so on.
Paul and I record our thoughts on a shared Trello board.
And we write EVERYTHING down.
Any problems he has as a freelance copywriter – they’re chucked in.
Any problems I have working for an agency – in they go.
At the minute, we’re wading in a stream of 41 problems, 22 fears, and 15 hopes. And we KNOW most of them are relevant to you … because at some point in our careers, they were (or still are) relevant to us.
Because we write those thoughts as and when they happen. Because we swore on being honest with each other. Because we use emotive language. Because we’ll never share these uncensored notes with anybody else. It’s more than a diary. It’s a live confessional.
And so before we write a new post for you – we use the notes to unzip our skulls and expose the guilt, fear, dreams, and flaws of being copywriters.
Why? Because we know you’re probably wrestling the same stuff – or will be, at some point.
Start doing this now, and you can take a shortcut into ‘pure empathy’ (all three types) with your audience.
WARNING: This only works — on its own — when you’re communicating to those following your path.
Say you want to launch your own copywriting blog. But you’re not sure you have anything to share. This is the best way I’ve ever known to create a never-ending list of worthy subjects.
Now, when you’re communicating to a client’s customer — an alien –you can try noting their problems, hopes and fears … but it’s guesswork, for the most part.
For that, you need an ‘empathy toolkit’.
How Can We Use Empathy (Properly) as Copywriters?
After I heard from Cara how people with Asperger’s are so misunderstood — and that they’re actually overflowing with empathy in some cases — I decided to work on this ‘toolkit’ myself, mainly for my own research, in the form of an ebook.
Here are the chapters so far:
- When NOT to use empathy in copywriting
- The quick research techniques to uncover what your reader’s thinking (and how she talks to her friends)
- The hard method for experiencing your reader’s thoughts as if they’re your own
- A 3-step formula for pressing the bruise on your customer’s forehead, before offering the painkiller she desperately craves (and writing a mouth-watering intro)
These methods come from marketers, copywriters and psychologists (the rich ones). And they’re only useable for those willing to go all Tom Harris on this writing thing.
Just click here to get your free copy of our empathy ebook (as it stands, so far).