How to… show empathy with your audience

Guest Post from Caroline Florence, The Insight Narrator, 12/6/2015

According to psychologists, empathy has two components:

  • Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how someone is feeling without feeling it ourselves. It relies on our ability to see things from other people’s perspectives and to put ourselves in their shoes.
  • Affective empathy is the willingness to share our own emotional reaction or feelings in response to emotions in others. This type of empathy requires us to share our own feelings.


Seeing things from the readers’ perspective and demonstrating that you understand this in your content is vital if you want to build connections with your audience.

“It’s a challenge for people who have only worked in agencies and haven’t got experience of large companies. They don’t really understand how far content can go and how powerful what you produce can be. The danger is that it has to be easily understood, so people don’t cascade it the wrong way up – which I have seen happen. Unless you have experienced this it is impossible to empathise with what you do in this situation.” - Engagement Director, Global Communications Agency

Over the years as a client of B2B suppliers, I’ve seen many proposals and pitches for rosters and projects. Most of these have focused mainly on talking about themselves and didn’t spend enough time explaining how they understood the issue and how they could help with the problem.

Most of the B2B suppliers I polled felt that because they were under pressure to meet revenue targets and sell to customers, their priority was to talk about themselves, their products, their USPs and their experience.

Whilst this might be extremely valuable, it’s very rational. To make an emotional connection to the audience, you need to demonstrate empathy before you start to talk about why you’re the best person to help them.

Things to consider

  • What really worries your audience? How would you feel if this was you? What would you be thinking?
  • When have you experienced something similar? How did you feel and how did you react?
  • What would you have liked someone else to do for you when you were in a similar situation?
  • Is your audience expecting a solution in your content or do they just want you to throw new light on the issue?

How to show empathy within your content

  • Acknowledge the difficulties. The best way to demonstrate that you at least understand their pain (or even better, feel it for yourself), is to acknowledge it and the difficulties that it will cause.

Example: “You need to do X if you are going to fix Y, but there will be a number of barriers and you’ll first need to consider how you are going to overcome them. These barriers include X, Y and Z and their impact on success is…”

  • Don’t try to ‘silver line’ everything. When someone’s experiencing a problem or a difficulty, the last thing they want is for you to point out the positives that this can bring. Instead, acknowledge their pain and share your own response.

Example: “It’s hard for small businesses to gain access to big retailers to showcase their thoughts on how to improve category performance. I’ve experienced this first hand when working for X and it had a big impact on achieving my targets. I found that by…”

  • Give generously. Once you understand the issue and how it makes your audience feel, you need to give them something. This might mean sharing information, or giving them directions - either way, you need to give before you ask for anything in return. 

Example: “I tried your service for myself and the three main things that would concern me are X, Y, Z. I would focus my attention on addressing X as the main priority, as this is causing… You could do this by… We’ve had experience of helping Brand A with a similar problem. In their case we helped by…”

  • If in doubt, ask questions! There will be situations that members of your audience face that you don’t fully understand - which makes demonstrating empathy much harder. In these circumstances, the best way is to show your desire to understand by asking your audience questions. Use these in your content to enquire about their goals, their concerns and their ideas. You probably won’t get a response to the questions, but it shows that you can still think about it from their perspective.

Example: “Is the decline in younger customers a real concern for you or do they drain profits by trying to keep them?” “How will you use this information to help you to achieve your goals?”

Over to you!

To start putting this into practice, review a piece of content that you’ve created:

  • How empathetic is the content and why?
  • Which of the techniques above did you include and how did you use them?
  • What could you have done differently to show empathy with the reader?

Further reading

Do you want more hints and tips to help you create great content that clicks?

Would you like to hone your existing content skills by accessing high-impact tools and techniques that you can apply straight away?

Then try: ‘Content that CLICKS: How to create great content in 20 steps’.

This book has been written for business executives, managers and leaders who want to improve their cut-through and impact with their colleagues, stakeholders and clients.