Empathy and blagging

When I have taught writing, I have often stressed the importance of empathy.

First comes the notion of empathising with the reader. What is it they want to get out of your communication. Facts? Entertainment? And if you are writing some sort of DM how can you make the experience of reading easy, and responding simple.

No writer can experience everything they have to write about. If you are writing fiction, you may have to inhabit a character of a different sex. And as a copywriter you will be constantly called on to write about things you have never experienced. Empathy is an essential tool, and I’ve found being a dismal hypochondriac, for example, surprisingly useful when I write direct to consumer healthcare material.

In the last couple of weeks I have been writing press ads for regions of France I’ve never been to. But empathy still proves a useful tool. For although I’ve never been to this particular region of France, what I can empathise with is the excitement people feel when contemplating a holiday. In doing this I can write copy that seems completely authentic, and of course this is what sells.

My most proud moment, in this respect, was in writing several brochures for Renault Trucks. As a lifelong non-driver, whose only experience of taking the wheel is in funfair dodgems, the account management team were careful to protect me from probing questions.

The feedback from the client, which I will always treasure, was that “This guy knows trucks.” Horrifically, however, after this I was invited to sit in the driving seat of one of their new trucks. Mercifully, after some blagging on my part, I was led away without having to reveal my laughable inability to drive. The Gods of copy were kind that day.

stand back – there’s still a pulse!

Day three of working on an immense website to do with cholesterol. I have spent a huge amount of time this year getting my head together with designers to create animations, writing scripts for possible video content with an interactive film maker, driving with strategists the overall messaging, not to mention planning the structure of it with an oddly volatile and passionate information architect.

But when your client is a massive international pharmaceutical company there are many hoops to squirm through. The sign off process is very lengthy. Marketing people have to okay anything you’ve written, as do the medical people and, of course, the legal people. Unless you know exactly what you’re doing, your copy can come back clinically dead, with any signs of life carefully excised from it.

Then there are the dreaded words “let’s put it into research”. This sounds very scientific, but it what this means is your work gets discussed in a room full of people who are intent on scarfing free biscuits, and will base their opinions on the fact that someone doesn’t like blue. And there is always the dreaded person in a focus group who will steamroller everyone else into agreeing with their own randomly derived opinion.

Research can also induce narcolepsy, or worse. After the 6th hour of watching people through a two way mirror discuss incontinence, for example, you find that you would rather stick your head into a blender than hear another word on the subject. This is when after checking that your client is safely asleep, you turn to the trolley of drinks, look at your watch (which is telling you it is only 4.00pm) and chug down anything with alcohol in it.

Eventually though, you develop predictive skills, and use the copywriter’s black arts to avoid the whips and scorns of lawyers, and medics and marketing people, and those willing to take a quick £25 and all the crisps they can eat to give you an opinion.

Ultimately there is nothing like getting your work back in something like the shape you sent it off in: alive, warm and decidedly human.

source material

I have a friend who is fond of saying that success happens when preparation meets opportunity.

As someone who makes a living from writing, part of my preparation is never to leave home without taking a Moleskine notebook and my Panasonic DMC-LX1 camera tucked into my tatty manbag. So I can scribble things down whenever an idea hits me, or photograph anything interesting I spot.

The other day, for all kinds of complicated reasons, I found myself in a museum suddenly struck by an idea of penetrating brilliance after looking at a display case of dried moths. Handily I whipped out my notebook and started making notes which later turned into a poem.

Recently I found myself sitting opposite a rather eccentric woman, knitting furiously on a crowded commuter train. Thanks to my notebook I could record what said to the man, a complete stranger, taking a seat next to her:

“Do you have a cold?” She said looking up rather ferociously from her knitting.
“Er… No.”
“Good. Because the way to stop getting colds,” she paused darkly, “is not to sit next to one.”

Who knows where I’ll use this yet. But it is the sort of dialogue that’s hard to make up. It’s a moment magpied away for future use.

Most importantly though, carrying a notebook and a camera changes your attitude, and your vantage point. When you go for a walk, you are not just getting some exercise or travelling from A to B. You are a collector, full of attention, on a mission to collect source material.