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Empathy: how to adapt your tone of voice

Updated: Jan 31

Want to connect with your customers on a deeper level? Create a more empathetic tone of voice.

Person holding up a pair of spectacles

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another person. As humans, we’re wired with an empathic disposition: as cave dwellers, co-operation was vital to our survival.

While empathy plays an important role in our personal lives, it’s somewhat lacking in our professional lives – but why?

Is it too touchy-feely for corporate culture? Is it because we give narcissists and sociopaths some of the top jobs in society? (Check out The Seven Habits of Sociopathic Managers) Or maybe it’s simply a lack of understanding of how it can build strong and resilient organisations and brands.

Empathy creates a deeper connection with your customers

Showing empathy means that you understand the challenges, pain points and fears that occupy your customers’ minds. It creates a deeper connection between you and the people you serve.

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, brands turned up their empathy dial and adapted the way they did business to meet consumers’ and society’s needs. (Remember when luxury fashion brands Burberry and Mulberry turned over their production to create much-needed PPE for the NHS?)

The uncertainty brought about by the crisis meant brands had to work hard to deliver timely and informative communications to address and pre-empt customers' concerns. Capturing the tone of the moment was crucial to the effectiveness of their comms.

At the time, Twitter did its own poll on people’s perceptions of brands in relation to COVID-19. Only 6% of Twitter Insiders believed that brands should continue to use their normal tone of voice to communicate during COVID-19.

So how do you adapt your language and communications to be more empathic while maintaining your brand voice?

Seek first to understand

To create communications that resonate with your customers, you need to understand who your customers are and what motivates them.

Analytics is the cornerstone of customer insight. And I’m not just talking about Google Analytics. Gather all the relevant data your organisation has on customers and potential customers. Who are they, where are they, what interests them, what problems do they have, what is their buying behaviour, where do they interact with you the most? It’s crucial to understand the full customer journey.

If you work in marketing, the chances are that you’ll already have access to this booty. If you work in comms, it might be harder to come by (comms departments have not traditionally been the generators or curators of customer data).

Understanding your online users is crucial too. If you haven’t already developed a set of user personas for your website, it's a good idea to do so. It’ll help you define the characteristics of your website visitors including demographics, interests, beliefs – all the things you need to know in order to inspire them to take action.

Adjust your tone according to the context

A brand or organisation should speak with one voice. But the tone of that voice can be flexed depending on:

  • the purpose of the communication

  • your customer’s state of mind (which is for you to try and predict).

For example, an email that contains important legal or mandatory information for customers will warrant a more formal tone than a promotional message about your products or services.

Consider these questions when deciding the tone of your communication:

  • what is the customer’s situation or environment right now

  • how do they feel

  • what are their concerns

  • how will the communication impact them

  • how can you improve their state of mind.

Be cautious about using humour because it has the ability to backfire. You don’t want to risk offending your audience (at worst) or leave them feeling perplexed (at best). But it has its place because, let’s face it, we’re more likely to engage with brands and organisations that have personality. Understanding your customers is the key to getting this right. Just try not to be bland.

Use the active voice

Read these two sentences and see which one you prefer.

The successful launch event was celebrated by the marketing team.

The marketing team celebrated the successful launch event.

Which sentence was easier to read? Hopefully, you’ll agree it was the second one. That’s because it’s written in the active voice. It’s more direct. It places the subject ('the marketing team') at the beginning, followed by the verb ('celebrated'), and then the object ('launch event').

There are times when the passive voice is helpful, like when it’s not clear who or what the subject is. For example: a complaint was made about the noise (we don’t know who the complainant is).

Using the active voice is good practice, and it’s a necessity when communicating via social media. Our digital world lends itself to a more conversational style of communicating with your customers.

Coloured pencils representing diversity

Use inclusive language

Society is made up of diverse communities, and you want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to feel included. So make your communications work harder and use inclusive language. For example:

  • clear, plain language works best. There’s no need for big fancy words when one simple word will do

  • avoid jargon unless you’re confident it will resonate with your audience

  • understand the communication needs of different groups, and challenge stereotypes. For example, an individual doesn’t ‘suffer from’ a disability, and someone in a wheelchair isn’t ‘wheelchair-bound’; they are a ‘wheelchair user’. Avoid using phrases like ‘the opposite sex’ (it makes no sense when you consider transgender and non-binary people). Avoid ‘man’ and ‘mankind’; instead, use ‘humanity’ or ‘humankind’. Say "Hello, everyone" instead of "Hello, ladies and gentlemen".

For more on inclusive language and links to resources, check out Inclusive writing: the new comms skill.

Why not do a critique of your last communication or marketing campaign? See if you can make any improvements based on the tips above. And if you have tips of your own, please share them in the comments.


If you would like a fresh take on your existing content, get in touch.


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