Monday, August 30, 2010

Dale Carnegie explains how empathy helps writers connect with their readers

Author and lecturer Dale Carnegie (1888–1955) frequently discussed empathy in his self-development books and courses.

For example, in his bestseller* How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), he quoted Henry Ford: “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

Mr. Carnegie commented, “That is so simple, so obvious, that anyone ought to see the truth of it at a glance; yet 90 percent of the people on this earth ignore it 90 percent of the time.”

As an example of ignoring empathy, he analyzed a letter from an advertising agency executive to the managers of radio stations. Mr. Carnegie interspersed his (probably dramatized) reactions to each paragraph. Here is a sample:

Mr. John Blank,
Blankville, Indiana

Dear Mr. Blank:

The _______ company desires to retain its position in advertising agency leadership in the radio field.

[Who cares what your company desires? I am worried about my own problems. The bank is foreclosing the mortgage on my house, the bugs are destroying the hollyhocks, the stock market tumbled yesterday. I missed the eight-fifteen this morning, I wasn’t invited to the Jones’s dance last night, the doctor tells me I have high blood pressure and neuritis and dandruff. And then what happens? I come down to the office this morning worried, open my mail and here is some little whippersnapper off in New York yapping about what his company wants. Bah! If he only realized what sort of impression his letter makes, he would get out of the advertising business and start manufacturing sheep dip.]

This agency’s national advertising accounts were the bulwark of the network. Our subsequent clearances of station time have kept us at the top of agencies year after year.

[You are big and rich and right at the top, are you? So what? I don’t give two whoops in Hades if you are as big as General Motors and General Electric and the General Staff of the U.S. Army all combined. If you had as much sense as a half-witted hummingbird, you would realize that I am interested in how big I am – not how big you are. All this talk about your enormous success makes me feel small and unimportant.]

We desire to service our accounts with the last word on radio station information.

[You desire! You desire. You unmitigated ass. I’m not interested in what you desire or what the President of the United States desires. Let me tell you once and for all that I am interested in what I desire – and you haven’t said a word about that yet in this absurd letter of yours.]

And so on.

Mr. Carnegie wrote those words 75 years ago. It is tempting to assume that, in our “non-judgmental” era, readers are more tolerant of writing that lacks empathy.

In fact, the opposite is true: Readers are less tolerant than ever. As direct-response marketers have confirmed by test after test, the average reader spends about four seconds deciding whether to read your letter** or drop it into the wastebasket.

That means the average reader (230 words per minute) will give you only 15 words to get him interested in what you have to say.

Now then. How many words are you willing to waste talking about yourself before you directly and clearly tell the reader what’s in it for him?

The Takeaway: Empathy is the first thing a writer needs. Discipline is the second. Everything else is a detail. Here are links to ten of my posts about empathy:

Puerile writing vs. grown-up writing (1)
Avoid being too academic – even if you’re an academic
If you want to build trust, don’t use jargon
Readers can't help judging you by your writing
“The Gobbledygook Manifesto,” by David Meerman Scott
When a reader says your writing is not clear
Empathy for the non-technical reader
Writing can make or break the sale
Empathy always matters – sometimes a lot
The greatest error: failure to empathize

*The title, which suggests psychological manipulation, was chosen by the publisher over the author’s protests. It is grossly inaccurate. As those who have actually read the book are aware, Mr. Carnegie based his advice on sincerity, not manipulation.

**That’s for a paper letter. For an email, it’s 3 seconds or less.

See disclaimer.

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