Being human: How empathy powers up your communication

10th May 2024

Sharon Tanton

Sharon is Content Director at Cohesive, and co-author of Valuable Content Marketing | Fascinated by the power of stories in making change | Loves gardening | Lives in Bristol

Andy Williams

Co-founder, the wordy 'other half' | Intrigued by good content, and what it achieves | Bit of a nerd, quite creative, loves to write | Father, cyclist, activist | [ he/him ]

Holding up a copy of Hate News, a frowning reader feels the weight of the world on her shoulders

Appealing to emotions is the quickest way to write content that connects. Evoke emotions and we sit up and listen. Neurons fire up in our brains, and our attention is captured for a moment.

It used to be, maybe as recently as five years ago, that all you needed to do to capture attention was just to write like a human. That was especially true in a B2B market. In a world of dull, dry, boring words, any content that stripped away the jargon and talked to you like a real person was like a breath of fresh air.

Being human

And it still is, in a way. But in a faster, noisier world of bot generated content, there’s a darker side to the currency of emotion. These days if you spend any time at all on social media platforms you’re bombarded with stories designed to provoke us to feel something. A rising tide of content engineered to trigger reactions from one section of the emotional spectrum; fear, anger, disgust, paranoia.

Nuance is lost in a hyper emotional world, and the compound effect of all this highly emotional content is divisive. If you engage with it, you can find yourself swept up in the swirling whirlpool of negativity. If you consciously distance yourself from it, you can find yourself becoming cynical about content that shows any kind of emotion. Whether you edge towards trust or distrust, you’ll feel like you’re on your own, and that’s not a comfortable place to be.

"How do you preserve humanity in your writing? As a writer, it's where the interest and joy lies."

Sharon Tanton

How do you preserve the humanity in your writing? Because you don’t want to lose the ability to appeal to the emotions. It’s still the most direct way to make a connection fast, and to create content that moves people to act. And, as a writer, it’s where the interest and joy in writing lies. All the good stuff – the sensory detail, the metaphors, the analogies, the stories, the poetry work because they appeal to the heart as well as the head.

The stepping stone between the rational brain to the emotional one is empathy. Rather than going straight for the jugular with big hyper emotional shots that grab attention fleetingly but fizzle away to nothing, begin with empathy.

Showing empathy fires a solar flare of focus that as a writer you can build on, leading a reader through your content and pulling them closer to you

Harnessing Empathy

Empathy can emerge as a sense of balance, or equanimity. It might seem paradoxical, but if your writing remains level headed even when vibrating with powerful feelings, it enhances rather than suppresses the positive impact of emotion. We can all discern between zealotry and real passion. Zeal betrays a particular sort of closed-off thinking – of opinion and viewpoint. Passion feels more open: open minded and open hearted. For sure, zeal can move us to action, but we can regret our hastiness. None of my zealous memories are particularly happy ones. Whereas passion can sustain us.

“Poor air quality kills: we need low traffic, low speed neighbourhoods to protect young lives.”


“Isn’t it obvious that too many cars, travelling too fast, endanger individuals and erode communities? Let’s offer people some control over the traffic in their neighbourhoods.”

Another empathic mindset move is to look outside of yourself to actively harness others’ emotions. Inspection, not introspection.

“Canvas people that live in a community – rather than those who drive through it – and you’ll engage with a much more positive sentiment around reduced speed limits, as well as a creative but realistic approach to traffic calming.”

Decoding nuance

Nuance is another skill born of empathy. Can ChatGPT write a blog on traffic calming in the style of Mahatma Gandhi or Taylor Swift? Sure it can. But that’s not nuance – not the shade we’re talking about anyway – it’s plagiarism. Nuance comes from really focusing on and understanding the careabouts of a single reader, someone intimate with and affected by the issues you’re discussing. It comes from a fine grained appreciation of the details, the subtle shades of care and concern. Nuance is totally authentic, and totally human.

“Gita observes that in her road, with less traffic moving more slowly, walkers now meander, explore and pause. She’s happy to walk her children to primary school, chatting with other parents she bumps into on the way. She contrasts this new experience with the old version of her neighbourhood –  as a rat ran for drivers and pedestrians alike.”

Promoting optimism

And then there’s positivity –  optimism. As we hinted at the top of this article, humans have an innate negativity bias in our peripheral thinking that was millions of years in the making. That’s why headlines – scanned at speed often while half looking at something else – are almost always written in the negative. They appeal to an extension of our threat reflex, with its irresistible call to run, fight or freeze.

"Those basic instincts were not enough to elevate humanity's progress."

Andy Williams

But those basic instincts were not enough to elevate humanity’s progress. So over the next few million years we evolved a pre-frontal cortex – an upper brain – that gave us unreasonable levels of reasoning, creativity and other complex cognitive behaviours. That brain knows that optimism is just as rational as pessimism. It understands that positive vibes can unfreeze our paralysed thought processes. Ultimately when we offer hope, we’re giving our reasoning selves a much bigger, much better ‘high’ than the quick thrill of fear.


So don’t fall for the ‘bad news sells’ line. Harness positivity, to differentiate yourself from the artificial and the automated. Harness empathy to create connection. And harness hope, to mobilise change.


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