Friday, April 25, 2008

The greatest error: failure to empathize

The single greatest barrier to clear writing is lack of empathy. That is to say, failure to perceive the reader’s point of view. Here’s a simple example:

Depending on whom you listen to, the typical user of email takes from 0.02 seconds to 3 seconds to read a Subject line before deciding whether to delete or open the message. One morning, a few weeks ago, I was sifting through my email, deleting spam and watching for real mail. I paused for a split-second on an email from “Circ Email Notices,” with the Subject line “Circulation Notices.”

I was about to delete it when I thought, “Wait. ‘Circulation’ – isn’t that librarian-jargon for books that have been checked out? I’d better open this.” Sure enough, the email was an overdue notice from Lamson Library, the local university library. I had nearly deleted the notice. It’s fair to assume that many readers did delete their notices.

The librarian had not empathized with his reader. If he had, he would have avoided using librarian-jargon. He would have used the reader’s language. The return address would have been “Lamson Library.” (The reader doesn’t tend to think in terms of departments within the library. He tends to think generally about the library.)

And the Subject line would have been “Overdue Notice.” (That’s the most likely notice the reader expects to receive from the library. And he expects to get one notice, not the multiple notices implied by the librarian’s use of the plural “Circulation Notices.”)

In effect, the librarian was talking to himself: “I have to send the circ notices.” He saw his writing task only from his own point of view. He failed to consider that he was writing to non-librarians.

The Takeaway: Failure to empathize with the reader is the fundamental error of the careless writer. It is the error on which he builds all his other errors. Before writing anything – even an email – pause for a moment to visualize your intended reader. This is especially important if you are a specialist and your reader is a layman. (More on this in our next post.)

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