The strategy of empathy in business writing

At the beginning of North by Northwest (1959), Mad Man Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) famously reminds his secretary that ‘in the world of advertising there’s no such thing as a lie, there’s only the expedient exaggeration….’

The most common confusion I find myself addressing when I meet prospective clients looking to engage my personal services is defining the difference between copywriting and writing what I call ‘strategic documentation’ for small businesses and individual entrepreneurs.

It’s essentially the difference between telling a truth that your readers can hear and telling them an ‘expedient exaggeration’.

Language is a tool designed to represent reality via a common abstract symbology—a code, if you will.  When we communicate in business, it’s important that the message we transmit is the same message that our clients, investors and other stakeholders receive, for a misinterpretation of the code can be costly.

The problem with marketing is that it’s a corruption of the fundamental function of human language.  Whether you call it an outright ‘lie’ or an ‘exaggeration’ which expediently facilitates your short-term financial goals, the effect is the same: in seeking to manipulate language to create an impression of your product or service which is not strictly and accurately tied to the referent, marketing does a violence to human language which breaks trust.

If we want to continue doing business with people in the long term, we need to continually affirm our truthfulness, honesty, and trustworthiness—in short, our reliability—in our written communications with them.

But we have all had the experience of writing a memo to a difficult colleague who is hell-bent on pursuing an idée fixe, or a proposal to an investor we desperately want to impress.  We seek to express and explain our truth to the reader as honestly as possible, and yet we can’t derail the difficult colleague from his costly plan or persuade the investor we are sure would be the perfect partner for our enterprise.

Our words meet resistance.  It’s as though the other party cannot ‘hear’ the truth.

This is what I mean when I say that my Bespoke Document Tailoring service involves writing, editing and proofreading ‘strategic documentation’ for small businesspeople and individual entrepreneurs; for it involves telling the truth in a way that your audience can ‘hear’.

The strategy is empathy.  Mirror neurons facilitate our written communications by giving us access to the common code of human language and allowing us to empathically ‘picture’ in our minds what a writer is trying to say in these abstract symbols scratched on a page.

But the problem, as Professor Steven Pinker observes, is that most people—even experts in their own professions—find it tedious and difficult to logically organize their ideas on the page from the point of view of the person who will ultimately read their words.

To put it bluntly, they’re lacking in the strategy of empathy.

Empathy for your reader is the fundamental difference between manipulating language so as to create an expedient impression of your product or service in his or her mind, and manipulating language so that the person you are seeking to persuade can hear the truth of your proposition and agree that the solution you are offering is a good one.

If you want to get your needs met in business, you better be prepared to offer value truthfully in a way that meets the needs of the people you are seeking to convince.  Finding the beautiful synthesis between your concerns and theirs and stating it eloquently, reverse-engineering your argument so that it falls out logically from the point of view of your reader, is core to the strategy of empathy.

As you can see, the preparation of ‘strategic documentation’ goes far deeper than copywriting—and, indeed, is diametrically opposed to it.

When you tell the truth about your product or service in a way that your audience can hear, the old alchemy of marketing, trying to massage ‘features’ into ‘benefits’ by some linguistic sleight of hand, is revealed for what it is—an ‘expedient exaggeration’.

If you are in Melbourne and surrounds and you’re not sure how to frame your message in a way that your reader can hear and agree with, I invite you to contact me for a private measure, or download a free brochure to find out more about how I can assist your small business with my Bespoke Document Tailoring service.

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