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Empathy is everything in content design and creation

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I recently directed a piece of video content which we hope will form the bedrock of a campaign driving awareness of a specific disease.

The disease and its symptoms are taboo.

The content and its story are empathetic.

Sufferers of this disease endure excruciatingly awkward social situations where, essentially, their bodies fail them.

Our bodies failing us in old age is one thing, but what if our bodies visibly fail us in confined but busy places like, say, a theatre just before the curtain goes up? Or in the changing room of an up-market store, ruining the expensive clothes? Or at your child’s school open day in full view of everyone else (and your child)?

These were all real stories we heard. There were more.

Now, I don’t have the disease. I don’t know anyone closely who has it. (Or at least I don’t think I do). Similar diseases, related diseases - but not the same. This one is diabolical. (The campaign’s not live yet, so I can’t name it but you can imagine).

With a disease such as this one, and its often humiliating physical consequences, sufferers can shut themselves off from the world, from their friends and families. They get hard to reach. Getting them to open up is even harder.

So, how could we as a creative and strategic team hope to represent sufferers of this disease in the right way? We need to learn to see the world from their perspective. We need to learn to speak in their voice. And we need to do this without being presumptuous. We also need to tell a story that is tonally and stylistically right. Second guessing is seldom effective and here it could be disastrous.

What we need as creatives, is real empathy. The master of harnessing real empathy in the modern creative world is probably still Google. There ‘empathy is king and trumps all other job qualifications’. Nowadays, they even have an ‘empathy lab.’

The contemporary school of thought in psychology is that there are three principal forms of empathy.

First up is ‘cognitive empathy’ aka ‘perspective taking’. In short, our ability to identify and understand the emotions of others. Stand up comedians are good at harnessing this.

The second is ‘affective empathy’ aka ‘mirroring feelings’. This is about emotional contagion. Mirror neurons in our brains fire when we sense another person’s emotional state - stress or fear or anxiety, for example - and create an echo of that state inside us. It feels like we can suddenly see into that person’s inner world. Actors should obviously be good at harnessing this.

But the third empathy variant is the most important and is the one we were aiming to harness with our video most of all. That variant is ‘compassionate empathy’ - a term popularised by psychologist Paul Ekman.

The difference with compassionate empathy and the other two is incremental rather than discrete. With this kind of empathy we not only understand a person’s situation and feel it, but are triggered to take action too. I believe content directors should be good at harnessing this.

With our campaign we want non-diagnosed sufferers to identify themselves and get diagnosed, but we also want friends and family members of sufferers to realise what that person might be going through, and urge them to get diagnosed.(Once diagnosed, treatment is a definite possibility with this particular disease).

Like Google, I strongly believe that the most important creative skill in our contemporary, and let’s face it, digitalised world is empathy. And I also believe that a real sense of empathy is the thread that ties all the best creatives from the key digital disciplines together: content, copy, UX, design, advertising, strategy.

Empathy helps you understand the most acute needs of your customer in content design.

Empathy helps you pinpoint in the key emotional insight in your campaign content.

Empathy helps you see the best context in which to place editorial content.

Empathy helps you write characters and stories that people want to engage with.

Empathy helps you make work, products and services that resonate and endure.

Our campaign will go live soon and we’ll share it on CP when we can. I hope that it gives you a different perspective. I hope that it moves you. And most of all, I hope you take action.

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