I began my career as an actor. Over the course of 20-odd years, I took a lot of acting classes. And one of the lessons that stuck with me was from a teacher that told us: "Even if you play the most heinous villain, if you want to bring their story to life, you need to understand them and develop empathy for them."
Empathy? For the likes of Iago from Othello or Ursula from The Little Mermaid? How? And why?
You cannot do a story justice if you don't understand the party you're representing. As an actor, you're representing a character on stage or screen. As a marketer, you're representing your customer. (Although I'm sure your customers are much nicer than any dramatic villain!)
Let’s take a closer look at why empathy is so important in storytelling and how to develop it.
The Interplay Between Empathy and Storytelling
Empathy and good storytelling are inextricably linked. Stories designed to provoke greater empathy bring an audience closer together, and when we understand each other better, we’re able to craft more compelling stories.
Research from Dr. Paul J. Zak and his colleagues shows that a captivating story stimulates our brains to release oxytocin. Oxytocin triggers people to feel greater compassion, trust, and generosity, increasing our sensitivity to the social cues from those around us.
So good storytelling can trigger someone to build a bond with those telling the story. But for a story to provoke an oxytocin rush, it needs to capture the viewer’s attention in the first place.
Dr. Zak’s team also found that stories lacking a straightforward narrative or clear angle made the audience tune out, and they never experienced the oxytocin release. And without that release, these weak stories did not generate greater compassion and trust.
As a marketer, understanding your audience positions you to craft a story that will compel viewers to take notice and develop a positive association with your brand. So great storytelling begins with knowing your audience.
Familiarizing Yourself With Your Audience
To have empathy for someone whose life is different from your own, you need to take a peek into their world.
If you’re a marketer, the approach to understanding your customers starts with research. Market research can tell you about broader trends, but coming to know your individual customers through surveys and interviews often provides you with the most significant insight into your audience's unique attributes and point of view.
Rather than relying on assumptions about your audience, go straight to the source. Recording interviews and jotting down phrases and themes that continually pop up in conversations can help you identify common threads among your customers.
Diving Into Their World
Once you know the basics, it’s time to go a little deeper. For marketers, that means creating personas. These personas represent the significant segments of your audience. Very few products or services are targeted at one homogenous group. Most businesses sell to several groups, each with unique demographics, personalities, and needs.
Some marketers go full method-actor on the persona creation process, coming up with a fictional name, photo, and backstory to represent each of their personas (see these examples from Terakeet to understand what I’m talking about). The actor in me loves when people go all-out on personas; the richer the backstory, the easier it is to empathize with each customer.
Having Their Back
Now you’re at a point where you know the person you’re speaking to inside and out. You know your handful of personas and each unique backstory. You understand the reality that’s driving them to seek a solution like your product or service.
Great marketing is about having your customer’s back. You’re not trying to trick someone into buying your offering. You’re addressing a real pain point in their life and presenting them with the best solution.
To create a story that resonates with your audience, you must empathize deeply with them. Uncover their struggle and why it matters. Take the time to understand why your product or service can best solve that problem. Then finally, present yourself, humbly but firmly, as the best option to get the job done.
Never Stop Listening
Your journey in empathizing with your customer never really ends. Another acting truism is that the real secret to acting isn’t reciting your lines; it’s listening to your scene partner.
The lesson here for marketers is to listen with empathy to your audience’s responses to your messaging. Think of your marketing message not as a declaration but as the beginning of a conversation. Be willing to absorb what you hear from your audience and make adjustments as needed.
And as we learned from the research conducted by Dr. Zak and his team, good storytelling becomes part of a virtuous cycle.
A compelling story—one driven by empathy for your audience—boosts their trust in your brand. Then, once you’ve fostered a closer relationship with your audience, you develop a more nuanced understanding of their pain points, objections, and needs. From there, you can produce even more empathetic stories, attracting more attention from prospects who share your current customers’ needs.
When you keep your focus on empathy rather than selling, you not only strengthen your messaging, you deepen your connection with your audience and your brand.