Businesses these days are keen on formulas. They want to find what works, duplicate it a bunch of times and, subsequently, make a bazillion dollars with minimal effort. To that end, there now are multiple studies looking at the specifics of how to communicate. What’s the best time to send an email, for example, or what’s the ideal length for a blog post?
To all that, I laugh.
The reality is, it doesn’t matter what your sentence structure is. The writing styles of Ernest Hemingway and Charles Dickens, for instance, are night and day. We still make an effort to decipher Shakespeare, too, even though no one would use his language today. And despite research that suggests most people tweet at lunch, millions of people still care as President Donald Trump continues to tweet in the wee hours of the morning.
Because of empathy. Good communicators, regardless of the “voice” or mechanics they have, know how to trigger emotion. They paint pictures that make us feel like they understand and really get it. They make their message seem like it has weight by triggering the sensations and memories of what has weight for us. In that moment, their message becomes hopelessly intertwined with who we are. What’s more, we suddenly feel validated. We feel like we can trust the person communicating with us, because we feel heard.
At the heart of it all, to be heard–and therefore included–is all any of us really want.
So then the question is, if good communication is all about empathy, how can we bring that empathy into what we write or speak or even do with our bodies?
The answer is, don’t skimp on getting to know the audience. Know what they need. What drives them. What their history is. And for that, you have to ask questions. To read. To listen. To observe.
But being empathetic doesn’t just mean that you understand cognitively. Empathy by definition also means that you’re able to share feelings. And that often means you have to get your hands dirty and live what someone else lives, to experience what they experience, or at the very least, to make a conscious effort to find a similarity between your life and theirs. There’s simply no substitute for this. No shortcuts. It’s a different way of learning. Maybe that’s not what you want to hear in a world that prizes hacks and cutting corners, but it’s the truth.
Empathy first, crafting second
Once you have an honest way to relate to your audience, you can craft your message in the appropriate voice. Your story will not change. But the rhythm of it, your jargon, the gestures you include–all of those are adaptable. There’s no cookie cutter. No formula. If anything, good communicators are chameleons who can blend themselves into us. The best of the best can blend into more than one group at once, finding universal triggers to connect to others with through months or even centuries. If you want to be in the latter group, your only job is to learn with the fire of a thousand suns. If you’re not feeling what you’re saying or writing in a sincere way, you haven’t learned enough. Go back to the drawing board and don’t give up.
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