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The secret sauce of empathy to dramatically improve your storytelling campaigns

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No matter your field of expertise, unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ll have noticed that purpose is on the rise. The industry has never been more in love with purpose and storytelling – quite literally involved in telling human stories with a positive purpose at their core.

Though you may think that these campaigns mostly apply to the realm of charities and social good, this is a misconception. Purpose is more than a humanitarian effort. It is a mission; it is wanting to do something positive to change the world, be it to guarantee a safer society for all, or to fight the ongoing climate crisis.

At the heart of all this is a heightened sense of empathy. Empathy is what drives most of these stories and campaigns. We want the viewer, reader or consumer to empathise with our message. But just how do you do that?

For once, we are going to borrow a concept straight from the realm of science. Because I’m no scientist, I’m not going to delve into the tiniest details here; but I will still try to give an overview of what I know.

Introducing Mirror Neurons

You’ve probably heard of mirror neurons. It’s been almost 50 years since their discovery, and some portions of the scientific community have been overly enthusiastic about it for a long time. Others have downplayed their role and have been rather sceptical about the theories surrounding them – but let’s discuss one thing at a time.

A mirror neurone is a specific kind of neurone that fires both when a subject acts, and when that subject observes an action performed by another. Researchers have found the presence of these mirror neurons in primate species, birds and, most importantly, us humans.

The way a mirror neurone works is rather simple, albeit on a deeply unconscious level. Mirror neurons were found in the pre-frontal areas of the brain, among what were originally found as motor command neurons. These neurons are regular motor command neurons, being activated whenever a muscle response is needed to perform an action.

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We feel joyful whenever we see happy people having fun. Image credit: Absolute Post

However, a subset of these neurons will fire when we simply watch another person perform the same action. In an overly simplified way; have you ever felt hot in summer while looking at a person with a jacket? Have you ever found yourself mimicking someone else’s body language during a conversation? This is the realm of mirror neurons.

You’ve certainly found yourself yawning when other people do it. Perhaps you’ve seen a dog or, much less likely, a monkey do the same thing. Researches suggest it all has to do with mirror neurons – which has interesting implications for empathy as a whole.

The Secret Sauce of Empathy?

Mirror neurons were discovered in the 1980s and 1990s by a team of Italian researchers. Since then, the scientific community has been rather divided on the actual role of mirror neurons in determining basic human empathy. What we do know, however, is that mirror neurons do help us visualise someone else’s action in our brain before it happens, as some sort of simulation or anticipation of their movements. This helps us conceive them and look at them as real, functioning human beings.

There isn’t enough research out there to come to a final conclusion. Some scientists believe that mirror neurons are indeed the seat of empathy, others simply think their role is to help in social interactions. According to SingularityHub, what we know now is that it may be a bit exaggerated to say that mirror neurons are the only responsible for empathy and language, as our actions are always influenced by other parts of the brain; but somehow, the prefrontal cortex (just behind our forehead) is responsible for all of that.

Yes, but what’s in it for me?

Now, how do we apply that knowledge to the next work for a client?

Mirror neurons may or may not have the role that science has given them over time – some of you will care to look into it, others will be happy with just this seed of doubt. But what we can do is apply that basic knowledge to develop stronger, more human work.

If it is true that we tend to mirror someone else’s actions or emotions, whatever the reason may be, that may be what lies at the roots of the most empathetic sentiments we could tap into. In other words: have you ever been moved to tears by a person’s loss on screen? Have you ever cried for one of your favourite characters losing a child – maybe even without having a child?

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Artwork credit: Ivana Besevic

It’s easy to see that we do not need to be in a character’s shoes to know what they’re feeling. We tend to tear up when we see someone crying; we start to steam when we see someone angry. Our ‘empathetic brain’ puts us naturally in a position of solidarity with the person or generic living being we’re watching. Why would we even cry for a film like Hachiko, if that weren’t true?

Knowing that, you can see that a number of inspiring possibilities open before you. If you want to tell a touching story, play with characters and people. Make them human, make them believable, make them relatable. Make them vulnerable.

Same if you want your audience to empathise with an angry character, a mad character, a desperate character, an ambitious character. Think about body language, social features, get lost in the small details – but don’t overthink it. Find the perfect balance that work for you, and create something that will make people proud to be in that character’s shoes.

Too often we see characters that are one-dimensional, in films as in campaigns. People with no role other than introducing a product or showing off a set of features, with no discernible depth to them. If that is your client’s will and it works for you, fine. But if you are looking to create purposeful campaigns, works that really leave a lasting impact, empathy is the key to your success.

Your consumers are people, after all. Even if your goal is simply to boost sales, nothing says the benefits of your advertised product, service or brand won’t be clearer or stronger with a more empathetic character presenting them. Problems are the realm of empathy; your product is there to offer the solutions.

Header image: Ivana Besevic

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