May 10, 2022Liked by Nick Asbury

I am not sure that you were looking for a reply. I am conflicted when I think of one or two things:

I really understand this:

“Know your target audience. Not intellectually, but intuitively. Think like them, empathise with them, identify with them.” Mary Wear.

But then:

But for now, you get the idea: the secret to being a writer is to think about the reader. How are they likely to be feeling when they encounter this ad? How would you feel if you were them? What would make you read instead of turning the page? What objections are likely to be forming in their head as they read this sentence? How can you answer them in the next one?

When you think so much does intuition not go out of the window?

And really seeing an interesting perspective in others:

By the collective account of 51 writers, advertising is not only about taking the reader’s perspective—it also involves doing it in a spirit of respect and humility. You’re intruding on the reader’s time, trying to persuade them to change their mind about something,

When you respect anyone, you think about them differently, you instinctively give them more thought.

Thanks for introducing me to the connect of cognitive empathy. I think I will take a lot of time to understand it and then practise it, but it seems so simple… like why did I not see this before.

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May 10, 2022·edited May 10, 2022Author

Definitely looking for replies! Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

I know what you mean about that list of questions—how is the reader likely to be feeling? how would you feel if you were them? etc—it does make it sound complicated. But really I think it's breaking down a process that is otherwise very simple and intuitive. We all do it (to some extent) whenever we have any kind of everyday conversation. In fact, you were nice enough to do it in the first sentence of your comment, where you tried to imagine my state of mind about replies!

The thing is, when it comes to writing ads, or writing anything in a business context, people often forget to do what would otherwise come naturally. They switch to speaking purely from the business's point of view and listing off various centrally approved messages, without any thought as to whether they're relevant to the reader in that context. Or they imagine some unrealistic reader who happens to be wildly enthusiastic about their product.

I think a lot of cognitive empathy is about stripping away the complexity and getting back in touch with the humanity – the classic writing advice is to 'write as though you're talking to a real person', and it's definitely a good place to start.

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May 10, 2022Liked by Nick Asbury

Thanks a lot for your reply. It does make sense, I will attempt to do this...

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May 14, 2022Liked by Nick Asbury

Hi Nick, thank you so much for a very thoughtful and insightful article. 🙌🏽 This got my copy and 'real person' mind churning, and I sense that a small can of copy worms may have opened. I have always approached a brief with two hats - "Clare the copywriter" and "Clare the everyday person". Keeps me on track. I totally agree with your (and many other writer's) emphasis on cognitive empathy and the directive to "write as if you're talking to a real person". What can be done, however, to improve a writer's empathy radar? Or, what happens when, for example, a very young writer is trying to imagine the life of a pensioner? As an advertising educator, I have heard some rather funny slash alarming perceptions younger students may have of anyone over, even, um ... 30 ... let alone 65 or 80. What is your stance on aligning the writer's profile with that of their target audience, or 'empathy matching'? Personally, I am split. I get that being a mother, for example, should give you immediate extra empathy for other mothers ... however, I also think that the objective perspective of, for example, a non-parent can provide a different and refreshing perspective. Plus, with proper research, the non-parent might actually be more open to a wider set of experiences outside of just their own. (of course they would need to ensure they explore and talk to a lot of mum's and dad's etc. in order to empathise authentically) I ask this question as 'back in the day' the cliché of 'men should work on sports brands' is still around in new guises, with women working on 'female' products and juniors working on cool, fashion brands etc. I sense this directive is coming quite a lot from clients - they want to see their audience reflected in the creatives working on their brand. Perhaps the answer is simply to ensure you have a balanced creative team working on all, and to educate clients about why this is beneficial 🤷‍♀️ I am curious about your take. Any thoughts? 

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Hi Clare! Yes, exactly the right questions to ask.

I think there’s a spectrum from “You can literally only write an ad for an identity group if you’re from that group yourself” right along to “Anyone can write for anyone given a sufficient amount of research, cognitive empathy and writing skill”.

Right now, I think the cultural mood is much more towards the first end of that spectrum (which is partly why clients think it’s so important). For example, it’s become a big thing in the acting world to say only an autistic actor should play an autistic role. I think that’s a mistake that comes from confusing two issues. Yes, there should be total fairness and equal opportunity for autistic actors, but that’s because it’s a moral good in its own right. It’s not necessary to make the argument that autistic actors will somehow play autistic roles better or more ‘authentically’. And it’s ultimately self-defeating, because it ends in a world where you can only ever play the part of someone almost exactly like you – and anything else is met with cries of ‘stay in your lane’.

I’d like the mood to shift much more towards the other end of the spectrum, without insisting it has to go all the way. It would be crazy to deny that lived experience can be an extremely useful short cut to understanding a particular audience. But I would still see it as a short cut, rather than the only possible route.

In The Copy Book, Tony Cox talks about writing hugely effective ads for Volkswagen and House of Hardy (a fishing equipment company) without ever having driven a car or gone fishing. That’s obviously not on the same level as not being from a particular identity group, but I don’t think it’s qualitatively different.

One key point: in the context of most adverts, the cognitive empathy works at a subtler level than people realise. For example, say you’re marketing microwave steriliser products to new mothers. Not every copywriter is going to be able to relate to that particular product or audience, especially if you’re a 25-year-old man in your first job. But the right research and training will show you that you’re not really selling microwave steriliser products—you’re selling ‘saving time’ and ‘peace of mind’. And anyone of any background can relate to that.

I think that’s how a lot of advertising and persuasion works – the points of contact are more to do with shared humanity and higher-order benefits, even if the products and audiences vary.

I think it would be great to set students the brief of writing an ad for a cause they don’t support, or for a product that isn’t remotely relevant to their demographic. If you do the research and think your way into the head of an over-70 year old, then it has the extra benefit of making you question whether you understand your own age group as well as you think you do. When you start digging into it, all demographics are usually much different to the simplistic media portrayals.

Anyway… that is a long and still incomplete answer to a good question.

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May 16, 2022Liked by Nick Asbury

Love that Nick, thanks. Dx

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Thanks Dave, you’re exactly the person I would want to love it

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