Empathy 101

By Brazos Elkins, Jr Copywriter

The best creative advice I ever got was a single 9-word sentence. It’s what turned me from a nervous, opinionated, frustrated, just-trying-to-impress-my-boss intern into a real creative who could (at least occasionally) produce work that people find appealing. It wasn’t from a creative director, marketing guru, or advertising book. And it wasn’t just creative advice; it was life advice. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say reading and understanding one sentence matured me by years. It comes from “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser:


“The most personal things are usually the most universal.”


It’s empathy 101: the things that motivate, inspire, scare, concern, bother, worry, influence, and anger me usually do the exact same thing to other people. The things that I think are the most unique to me––my secrets, my worries, my memories––are pretty similar to what others think is most unique to them. The converse is also true: the least personal things are the least universal.


What I mean by that is when I create an ad that’s meaningful to me (it makes me feel something), people can relate to it, because (most) anyone can relate to emotions. When I create an ad that meets a bunch of criteria (“Feature a family with 2.5 kids,” “Use the word ‘quality,’” “Say something about soccer,” “Activate against this obscure holiday”) people may or may not relate to it. It depends if there’s anything meaningful left to say about a banner ad featuring a family with 2.5 kids playing a quality soccer game on Leif Erikson Day.


Meeting assigned criteria rarely, if ever, makes an ad meaningful and interesting. If an idea or ad makes you feel something, that feeling tells you more about how people will react to it than meeting all the criteria in the world.


This quote is the key to making ads that aren’t just noise. As different as everyone appears to be, human nature can be surprisingly consistent: people laugh when something’s funny, get bored when they’re unstimulated, and jump when they’re scared. This kind of broad intuition about people and how they react is the base on which a great multicultural/social-tribal/mindset campaign can be built. A target subculture has their own unique mindset and background, yes, but so does everyone else. Literally everyone is unique. So treat your target like humans first. Treat them like they’re you. Because they aren’t that different. Get their attention, then meet the criteria. Make them listen, then speak their language.


Paradoxes like Zinsser’s teach rich lessons, the kind that can’t be explained by a bullet list on a slide. They’re like little puzzles that knock your brain out of autopilot and reward you with something meaningful, instead of just more information. They keep giving and by giving, the more you think about them. A good ad should do the same thing.

Dieste Inc