By Deborah S. Bosley, Owner and Principal, The Plain Language Group
“People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational exposition end by starving the best part of the mind.”
This quote by William Butler Yeats, one of Ireland’s most famous writers, illustrates a problem we have in the content creation community. We create a multitude of written material, but we rely primarily on logical structures, building authority, plain language style, and information design principles, but we pay little attention to how readers respond emotionally to what they read.
We know our customers, when faced with complex text or unable to find what they’re looking for, respond with anger, frustration, fear, etc. According to a 2013 survey, 68% of US consumers experienced “customer rage.” But what can we do about that?
We need to understand emotional responses and write with empathy. Cognitive empathy is the largely conscious drive to accurately recognize and understand another’s emotions. Why is that critical for content creators? Because people make decisions with their emotions, and then use data and logic to justify those decisions. We, on the other hand, write as if the emotional response had far less power than it does.
The marketing world has long been aware of how people respond and act based on their emotions. They use fear, guilt, trust, value, belonging, competition, instant gratification, leadership, trends, and the pressure of time to motivate people to purchase products and services.
However, much of what content creators write is not marketing materials. Instead, readers engage with Terms and Conditions, Help Centers, FAQs, and a multitude of information users need to solve problems. In fact, often any written in “marketingese” is immediately dismissed as “selling,” not “solving.”
The emotions we should be expressing and eliciting are trust, confidence, relief, protection, and understanding. We should help readers trust what we say, have confidence in their decisions, feel relief that the text was easy and they found the solution, feel that the company or government agency has their back, and easily understand what action they should take.
If we can do that, if we can write with empathy, we will have responded to a person’s need to understand and be understood.