Writing with empathy

anne-wilson-profile-picA rough-looking man took us to the caravan, leading a frisky horse and surrounded by barking dogs. His eyes were muted with mistrust. It had taken an education liaison worker several weeks to gain the Travellers’ trust and negotiate our meeting. Once inside the spacious, spotless interior of the caravan, I was mesmerised by cabinets full of Royal Crown Derby bone china, hand-finished in 22-carat gold. I learned later that this china is highly prized by Traveller women and displayed as a sign of wealth.

My job was to write a script for a film that would persuade the Traveller community to send more of their children to secondary school, my task that day to listen: to imagine myself in the shoes of parents who fear that their children will be victimised, vilified and bullied; their daughters corrupted and their sons led astray.

Empathy is crucial to the type of writing I do. I help people to communicate – online, in film, in print, in person – by balancing the story they want to tell with the interests and concerns of their audience. Our film would only convince Traveller parents of the value of school education if the content, style and structure of my script addressed their feelings and anxieties. As writers, though we often have an equally clear story to tell – about our research, for example – it’s easy to forget that readers’ own knowledge, perspective and expectations are not the same as ours, which can prevent them from hearing our message.

When I work with students and staff in universities, I challenge them to imagine all their various readers, to define what is most important to each and guess how long an individual will spend reading what they write. I encourage academics to put themselves in the shoes of an overloaded reader on a rainy Monday morning and to write in a way that connects strongly to their audience’s interests. Empathy helps us to understand and engage our readers; it breaks down barriers and allows them to hear what we have to say. Identify what drives your audience, speak to it — and you will have your readers in the palm of your hand.

7 December 2016