Companies such as sweet suppliers, wedding venues and fancy dress hire shops all potentially have a need for promotional text. But not all clients need cheerful copy. Sometimes you have to write compelling, yet understanding marketing materials for funeral directors, solicitors, care services and charities.
Empathy comes naturally to a lot of us, but it isn’t always something that can be turned on like a tap. Alternatively, it may be that our minds are so coloured by a previous similar topic that we can’t step out of our own experiences and write authentically to people going through something different, or those on the other side of a problem.
Case In Point
I’ve wanted to write something about copywriting for sensitive topics ever since fellow copywriter Ben Lloyd shared this photo on Twitter. It’s not his work of course – but it just highlights the importance of sympathetic copy:
— Ben Lloyd (@Techwriteuk) July 27, 2015
Which I think you’ll agree is quite… stark. A lot of people talk about “what the deceased would have wanted.” So would you think dear Aunt Edna would want a “BLACK PLASTIC URN” or for those dealing with her affairs to “GENERATE A DEATH CERTIFICATE AND FILE WITH VITAL RECORDS?” Though necessary, somehow I don’t think that’s quite what she or her nearest and dearest would have had in mind.
What they could have done…
Let’s not blame the person behind this copy, I’m sure they meant it with the utmost of sincerity. If they work directly for the funeral director, they are surrounded with this stuff every day, and it’s very easy to get desensitised and go for the practical angle. However, emotions don’t get much more raw than grieving for a loved one, so all copy needs to be kind. The practicalities need to be addressed, but maybe not quite as on the nose as the example above. Personally I’d rewrite some of the points as follows:
Our more affordable option includes a dignified collection from the place of death as standard.
Any cremation and family service you arrange with us includes an online obituary to share your fond memories with family and friends, wherever they are in the world.
You’ll note that I’ve opted for longer-form copy than the example. Full sentences allow you more opportunity to soften the text, so avoid short bullet points where possible. I know this goes against the copywriting grain for some who prefer brevity, but there’s a time and a place for punchy text. You won’t find it in the funeral industry.
Similarly, when you are writing for health and care organisations, you need to consider the emotions that are going through the reader’s head. Is your copy more likely to be read by the patient themselves or by their nearest and dearest? Why do people generally seek out this particular type of care or therapy? Healthcare fields are far too diverse to go into each type here, but try to envisage the feelings, concerns and motivations behind those making the decision.
Empathy is also important when dealing with legal services. The legal field may seem very cold – with punches not pulled and an unwavering reliance on the facts. Though that is true to an extent, people seek legal counsel for a number of emotional reasons. Are they looking to get a will made? Does the person want out of an unhappy marriage – and are children involved? Do they want to appoint someone as a power of attorney? Are they having issues at work that may require legal attention? Have they had the now infamous “injury in the past 3 years that wasn’t your fault?”
Understand why the end user will be looking at the text, and try to reassure them that they’d be making the right decision. The matter-of-fact side of the legal industry does allow you to be a little more direct than some of the other fields we’ve discussed, but write with extra empathy around areas where emotions are particularly present such as family law, wills and probate and issues of injury and negligence.
When it comes to touchy subjects such as these, it’s important to remember that though the features and benefits of a service are important, the copy needs to paint them in a practical, yet understanding light. Wrap up any harsh practicalities with a warm blanket of empathy and respect.
If you’re struggling to write empathic copy, put yourself in the shoes of someone who needs to actively look for the topic.
- Is the service provided ultimately for the reader personally or someone close to them?
- Have you or has someone close to you had to deal with this before? What emotions did you/they feel surrounding the arrangement?
- What language did you/they try to avoid when discussing the topic? Make sure to avoid it here too if at all possible.
- If it’s something you genuinely haven’t dealt with before, how would you speak to a friend who was dealing with an issue where they’d have to use these services?
- I’m hoping this last one should go without saying: never try to lighten the mood. Injecting humour into copy is hard enough on its own without trying to add levity to a sombre topic where emotions are already running high. Just don’t.
Now, I’m not in the habit of quoting from religious texts, but a bit of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” does apply here. Write unto others as you would have them write unto you in this kind of situation.
Acknowledge the emotions that are behind the end user seeking out and finding your copy. What would you like to hear from this kind of company in this kind of situation? Take that to heart and write from there.
Have you seen any copy out in the wild that’s made you cringe? Stumbled upon any advertising that’s caused your inner empath to do a double take? Or maybe you’ve seen a piece of sympathetic copy that was done really well? Please share your experiences down in the comments.