Friday, April 25, 2008

Empathy always matters – sometimes a lot

The careful writer always tries to empathize with the reader. It can make a great difference. Consider this example:

Years ago, while preparing for a four-day hike, I bought a compact snake-bite kit, slightly larger than a man’s thumb. The kit contained a tourniquet, a vial of iodine, a scalpel, two rubber suction cups, and the instructions – printed in small type on a sheet of Bible paper, folded into the size of a postage stamp.

I sat in an easy chair in my living room, under a powerful reading lamp, and unfolded and read the instructions. They were very clear. It took me only about three minutes to read and understand them.

But, being a professional writer, I immediately began to empathize with other readers. What if someone bought the kit, did not read these instructions in advance, and then suffered a snake bite? I could picture him: frightened; struggling to concentrate; holding the wind-blown, tissue-thin paper with trembling hands. Squinting to read the small type in blinding desert sunlight or in the deep shade of a thick forest.

Had the manufacturer foreseen those conditions? I looked at the retail packaging. Yes. The packaging included this notice, in large type: “READ THE INSTRUCTIONS NOW.”

That company knows how to empathize.

The Takeaway: Before writing any document, visualize your intended reader: age, sex, occupation, experience, title, knowledge, interests, beliefs, fears, goals, dreams. Visualize the conditions under which he will read the document – and his frame of mind. Try to visualize a real person, as opposed to a composite. Some writers actually tape a photo of a representative reader to the monitor, and look at it often: “Hmm, would Michael understand and believe this sentence?” That may sound contrived, but it works. Try it.

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